LOOSENING LIPS: THE ART OF THE INTERVIEW
THE SET UP
Research: Preparation is as important as execution. Never pick up a phone or knock on a door without research. If you have only five minutes, do a search on your subject on the Internet. Given more time, check clips, resumes, biographies, various writings, and home addresses (map the address on a locator program just to get a feel for it). Look at court records, bankruptcy files, association memberships, etc. Question friends, family, neighbors and associates. If you are going to talk to a person about a machine, read the operating manual ahead of time. Obviously, a well-researched interviewer will know better what to ask, but there's another advantage in all this preparation. A well-researched interviewer is an empowered conversationalist. On the phone your voice will sound more authoritative: in person your demeanor will be more hypnotic. Yacht buyers candidly described their multi-million-dollar tax breaks and tanker captains admitted their mistakes to me because I could converse so easily about their boats, their lives, and their businesses.
Plan: Plan your interviews, perhaps consulting a friend or colleague. You'll need to consider who to interview first, and where. You'll consider how much time you'll have, whether to tape record, and how much to reveal. My general advice: early in any investigation I interview someone with key knowledge to test the tip or theory. Then I work from the periphery inward, i.e. talking to witnesses on the edge of an event first, and then moving toward more and more central characters (unless I'm in a hurry, at which time I will reverse this procedure). I like to interview people at the place where they are doing the thing I am writing about. However, whistle-blowers and reluctant targets are best contacted at home. You might calm a nervous source by taking him or her for a walk. A lunch appointment requires your subject to spend at least an hour with you. A tape recorder might cause nervousness at first, but it will "disappear" during the interview. (Disadvantage: you'll need time for transcribing). I like to reveal as much as possible to an interview subject, but beware of feeding information to people that will come back to you as fact. There is an old police adage: "Don't ask, 'Did you see the red car,' but instead ask, 'What did you see?'"
Organize: Write single-word clues on the flap of your notebook to remind you of issues you want to cover. Add to that list during the interview so you don't interrupt but are prepared to tackle unresolved issues later. Organize paperwork that you might pull out so you don't fumble and disrupt. Prepare a comprehensive all-purpose question for cases where the door might slam in your face. Prepare the photographer and any fellow interviewer so you will work well together.
Inner Interviewing: Prior to any interview you must silence your ego and thus prepare yourself to listen. The ego is a primitive device installed in your brain to tell you when to flee from tigers. Unless you regularly interview tigers, it will misinform you during any interview, hectoring you with concerns about your next question or whether you dressed properly. I silence my ego using three steps. The first step is preparation, as described above. Then I imagine a successful interview, closing my eyes the way a ski racer does, envisioning the event from start to finish. Finally, I meditate, very briefly, by simply emptying my brain of all thoughts and breathing deeply. Also as part of my preparation, I empty myself of uneducated pre-conceived notions, opinions, and prejudices, thus preparing myself to learn.