Losing Control In An Interview

I get nervous before interviews. I sometimes hope they’ll be canceled because someone got the flu or there’s a snowstorm. For one, I’m basically an introvert and it takes a lot of energy to sit down with a stranger and have a conversation. But mostly I get nervous because I have no idea what’s going to happen in an interview. I’m in charge because I’m holding the microphone and asking the questions . . . but there’s some other thing happening during an interview that I can’t control. It’s impossible to predict what will happen between two strangers in conversation, especially when there’s a microphone in the room. And I think it’s this lack of control that I dread and love the most.

So here are a few things about paying attention and losing control in an interview.

Two Things Are Happening

Let’s say it’s an interview with John.

There are two things happening at once during the interview. There’s content — John is saying things that mean things.

Then there’s dynamic — which is everything else. The emotional charge behind what John’s saying. The changing dynamic between me and John as the interview goes along. The place where John seems to ‘arrive’ into the conversation. The place where John forgets I’m there and seems to be talking to himself. You can hear all these dynamics in the tape and it’s part of what makes the tape interesting because it’s the human part. It’s what makes it possible for listeners to imagine what it’s like to be John.

This isn’t very surprising. It’s just like real life and regular conversation. But I think people often work too hard at getting interviews ‘right’ and some of that dynamic gets squeezed or ignored in all that effort. Just the other day a nice young bearded man came to my house to interview me about interviewing. First he decided that he wouldn’t wear headphones because they might ‘separate’ us somehow. But then when he turned on the recorder, he got this look of extremely determined curiosity on his face, which was so interesting that it made me forget the question.

It’s not easy — managing equipment, listening for story elements and paying attention to subtle cues from an interviewee all at once. But I think you get the best interview when you pay attention to all of it, which requires a kind of dual brain that is both focused and open.

Content is a little more straightforward. I’m gathering elements for a story and I can hear what I’m getting and hear what’s missing as I go along. And I’m being pretty pushy about it in a nice way because I’m there to get good tape. But my other goal is to make John comfortable enough that he can stop trying to do the interview ‘right’. I want us to go to some third place where we can be surprised and maybe a little confused together. Surprise and confusion are really interesting to listen to, whatever the subject, because we’re all confused about a lot of things. So if I can locate John’s confusion, or locate what he doesn’t know, then we all feel a little closer to him.

Techniques For Getting To Surprise And Confusion

Silence is a great way to find surprise and confusion in an interview, and by silence I mean just stop talking. Stop firing off questions. Run out of questions for a while. Obviously, I wouldn’t do this at the beginning of an interview when I’m trying to help someone feel comfortable with a microphone in their face. But once we’ve established trust, often they’ll finish a thought and I won’t come in with a response and it’ll go quiet and I’ll let them figure out how to fill in the silence. Often something interesting happens. The interview moves into a different key.

Another thing I sometimes do in an interview, if it seems the person is comfortable enough — I’ll stop looking at them. Eye contact is important in an interview. But once there’s trust, I’ll often sometimes look to the side or out the window while they’re talking. They know I’m listening. I’m just not looking at them. And this slight shift in focus often changes their tone of voice. They’re still talking to me but now they’re also talking to themselves. I like car interviews for this reason — when you’re facing the same direction, you’re talking both to each other and to the middle distance, which has a completely different sound than talking ‘face on face’. This shift in focus can yield really intimate, thoughtful conversation.

Another technique I can think of for getting to surprising territory in an interview — and it’s not really a technique — is just a willingness to ‘not know’. I’ve prepared and researched and imagined this interview in advance and my goal is to get good tape to make a story. But I think a good interviewer has to be willing to get lost, or go blank, or need a minute to think about what’s going on . . . and I think this willingness to not know gives the interviewee permission to do the same.

Last. Dumb questions are sometimes the best ones. It doesn’t really matter what you ask as long as the answer is interesting. And sometimes it’s good to ask big questions in the middle of nowhere. I almost always ask the question, ‘What are you afraid of?’ because I really want to know the answer from pretty much everyone I talk with. In this clip, I ask that question, and then I ask a super dumb question that I don’t know why I asked but it ended up yielding some of the best tape in the interview. This is a conversation in my car in a spectacular rainstorm with a young man who’d just gotten out of federal prison and was trying to figure out what to do next.

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Listen to “A clip from ‘Plain Life’”

[You can listen to the full episode of “Plain Life” here.]

Techniques For Not Getting Anything Surprising In An Interview

You can’t judge someone and interview them at the same time. Or you can, but it will be a very bad interview.

Related to judgment . . . ask yourself if you’re trying to make a point, win an argument or convince your interviewee of the errors of their thinking. If you are, even if it’s subtle, they’ll feel it. And it’s probably going to be a bad interview. The reason you’re there is to come to know and understand another person, so that your listeners might come to know them too. This means trying to understand how they arrived at their own set of values and opinions. And their logic will make sense if you look for it. It always makes sense. You don’t have to like it or agree with it, but that’s not the point of the interview. The point is understanding. My friend Susan is a private investigator and on her website she has a Rumi quote that speaks to this perfectly: “Beyond right doings, beyond wrong doings, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.”

It is difficult to have a good interview if you are following a list of questions. You can have the list. Just don’t take it out of your bag. Toward the end, if you want to have a look at the list, have a look at the list.

You might not get to anything really great if you’re scared to guide the conversation. Yes, you want your interviewee to feel comfortable. But if he doesn’t stop talking about his blue heeler you’re going to run out of time and you don’t want the blue heeler tape. Interrupt with enthusiasm and love. ‘I really want to hear more about . . .’ ‘Can we talk about . . .?’ ‘I’m going to take a hard right here and ask you about . . .’ You can guide the conversation. People are less fragile than you think.

And if an interview isn’t filled with surprise and discovery, that’s okay too. Some interviews are just about what they’re about. Like cars. Or Benedict Arnold’s leg. I interviewed author Steve Sheinkin about boring textbook writing and Benedict Arnold and I never got the feeling that he surprised himself with some new thought or idea. But his knowledge and obvious enthusiasm about history were more than enough to make a good show. So not every interview has to be filled with mystery and surprise. Sometimes Benedict Arnold’s leg is enough.

This is the end of the show with Steve Sheinkin. We were standing at the monument to Benedict Arnold at the Saratoga National Historic Park . . .

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Listen to “A clip from ‘Benedict Arnold’s Leg’”

[You can listen to the full episode of “Benedict Arnold’s Leg” here.]

Love

This might sound esoteric, but I think in the end a good interview is about love. It’s about finding and falling into the humanity of another person, so that listeners can fall in too. I fall in love with most everyone I interview, but it doesn’t happen automatically. It requires getting ready for it . . . or getting open for it. If your hands are a little clammy before the interview, if you half wish you could hide . . . you’re probably getting ready too.

Here is my neighbor and friend, Leland.

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Listen to “A clip from ‘Leland’”

[You can listen to the full episode of “Leland. It’s a Porcupine” here.]

Okay. Good luck! Get lost! Fall in love!

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