LOOSENING LIPS: THE ART OF THE INTERVIEW
GETTING ALL THE GOODS
Chronology: The techniques in this section of my handout are designed to organize the memories of your interview subject, to penetrate levels of privacy and to assure that you are receiving accurate information. Most importantly, take the subject through his or her story chronologically. You will understand the tale better, and you will spot gaps in the timetable. You'll organize the interview subject's memories this way, straightening out their messy mental file cabinet.
Life Story: Get the life story, even in cases where you don't intend to use it. When I interview a lawyer about a case, an engineer about a project, a bureaucrat about a government policy or even a public relations person about their client, I get the life story if I have time. This provides useful information, connections and hints for a better approach.
Logic: Listen for the logic in what a person is telling you. Train yourself to insist that the story make sense, that the facts and the events presented are following an "A-B-C-D" logic. If you hear, instead, something that sounds like "A-C-D" logic, you must find out what happened to "B". It might be missing because you didn't understand something; or the speaker is accustomed to talking to experts; or the speaker doesn't know; or the speaker forgot an aspect of the story; or the speaker hadn't thought about B; or the speaker is lying. These are all important issues to pursue. If you don't understand something, gently insist on an explanation. Never be afraid to ask. Remember this adage from Investigative Reporters and Editors: "There are no embarrassing questions; there are only embarrassing answers."
How: When a person says something important, ask the key question: "How do you know that?" It sheds light on credibility, extracts more detail and is a door opener to other sources. The inevitable answers will include: "I heard it from so and so, I saw it in X document or I was there". Follow these responses with more extensive questioning to determine the location and background of "so and so" or the ways to obtain "X document". Also follow up with the question: "How else to you know that." People often provide cursory roadmaps at first, but if you persist you will discover other routes. When a person replies to your question by saying they know about something because they were there, try hypnosis.
Hypnosis: When an interview subject person brings up an important event, slow them down and use hypnosis to get at the details. Ask questions that anchor the person in the past. Ask where they were standing that day, what were they doing, what were they wearing, what was the temperature and what were the noises around them? You may need to do this several times. People prefer to tell their stories, especially troubling stories, in the abstract. "I drove the car off the cliff." Once the subject is mentally anchored in the past - is back in the kitchen preparing to walk to garage to start the car - ask your questions in the present tense rather than past tense. Ask questions like: What are you doing now? What is your friend saying? By doing this, you will enliven the memory of the person you are talking to. Additionally, you will be there. You and the interview subject will drive off the cliff together.
Why: Don't just ask a person what they did; also ask why they did it. Newspapers can distinguish themselves by explaining events, but if you don't ask why, you'll have a harder time explaining. Questions like this may seem obvious, but listen to your interview tapes. We don't always do what is obvious.
Pay Attention To Detail: Inventory the room thoroughly and in an organized fashion. Look at the walls, the desktop and the lapel pin. Make notes on what you see, and make intelligent use of it during the interview. If you ask someone to tell the story behind an object on the desk or the wall, it can relax and distract. It will also provide you with surprising information. Also, I regularly interviews objects with my eyes. I have asked "questions" of and gotten "answers" from ship engines and stormy seas.
Spontaneity: When you are "on scene", let things happen. Hang around. Listen and watch for the unexpected.
Telephone: If you can't be on the scene, ask people on the phone to describe their surroundings. This will transport you emotionally over the phone lines and provide information (the plaque on a man's wall became a key detail in one story, after I had independently verified what it said). Get people to tell their stories in three dimensions over the phone. Let things happen. Listen and "watch" with your ears for the unexpected.
Use Your Ears: We talk too much during interviews. Let the other person do the talking. Check your biases at the door; listen with an open mind. React with an open mind.
Look For Other Sources: While at the interview, listen and watch for other sources. Meet the secretary, the assistants and the co-workers and make note of details about them. This will come in handy as you turn them into sources.
Take Over: Your demeanor will be important. Be courteous and move with authority and confidence. Without being boorish, walk through doors ahead of your host and stop unexpectedly to chat with someone. If you can, chose your own chair and your position in the room.
Getting The Confession: Ask the subject for the names of people who support him or her. Then ask for the names of people who would criticize. Then ask what those critics are likely to say. This will jar loose uncomfortable information and tips. Ask whether the person has ever been disciplined or fired on the job or in school, charged with or convicted of a crime, arrested for drunken driving, sued, testified in court, etc. Since all this stuff is on a record somewhere, people are reluctant to lie about it.
Liars: If you know someone is lying, allow the liar to spin his or her yarn. Don't interrupt except to ask for more detail. Deceivers frequently provide extensive detail because they think a very complete story will add to their credibility. Listen and take good notes. When the lie has been fully constructed -- down to the last nail -- go away with an arrangement to come back. Re-interview the person, and when they start telling the lie again, get all the detail and arrange to come back again. Sit down with your notes, and logically pry apart the lie (nail by nail). Then re-interview the person, this time logically unraveling the lies. Don't be impatient. The fabricator is now in a corner. Keep them there until their resolve breaks down.
Don't Join: Be sympathetic in manner, but don't join sides with your sources. We always protect anonymous sources, but we also examine them closely. Don't grant anyone a license to lie. Also, don't get sucked in by the embattled congressman who seems so cooperative when he grants you an interview and says, "I don't believe in taking money from those guys." You should say, "that may be true, but I'm asking you whether you took the money, not whether you believe in doing so." Also don't be sucked in by the crook's confession to stealing $10,000 when in fact, if you pry, you will discover the amount was $100,000.
Don't Get Mad: Don't argue, fume, accuse or get angry. When you get angry you grant the recipient ownership of a piece of you, which they can collect on later. Conversely, if they get angry at you, and you handle their rage with aplomb, you will own something of them. That said, you should carefully listen to the sentiments and facts behind another person's anger at you. They might have a good reason to be livid, and even if they don't, there is important information for you contained in their anger.
False End Of An Interview: Whenever possible, interview a person more than once. Every interview has a false end, a point at which you are done with the main line of questioning and you close your notebook. At this point, I always tell people I will need to talk with them again. I get from them every phone number and contact address they can provide. If I don't already have their date of birth for some reason, I'll ask for it, noting that it might help me find them in the distant future should they re-located. Then I'll interview them again, paraphrasing at some point what I already understood them to say. This allows them to correct false impressions, and it inevitably provides me with more complete information. The first interview is like a snowplow, pushing the heavy stuff out of the way, easing my path for the second interview. People are also reassured to know that I am going to contact them again before the story runs.
Innovate: If an outrageous question comes to mind, and seems compelling, ask it. During a phone interview I convinced a man sitting in a bar with a cell phone to pass the phone around so I could talk with his companions. A ship captain allowed me to go through his files only because I asked.
Drain Them: People aren't aware of how much they know. You must guide them through their memory. Visualize your subject as a bucket full of information and empty it.
Honesty: Don't pretend to be someone else and don't lie. You can certainly omit information, but the more you can reveal about the nature of your story, the more comfortable and helpful your subject will be.
Be The Director: A great interview feels like a conversation but moves relentlessly toward the information you need. Keep control, but do so gently.
Be Flexible: You may know what your story is about, but don't get stuck. A really great interview might be one that completely changes your story. Seek the truth, not what you believe to be the truth.
Personality: Let your personality shine through (if you have a good one). Don't be a blank wall. It helps sometimes to tell people about you.
Open-Ended Question: Near the end of an interview, ask the person what else our readers might be interested in. Sometimes people have more than one newspaper-worthy story in them.
Check Back: After the story runs, call the subject for his or her reaction. You'll get additional stories and tips this way.