When I started working as a newspaper photographer in the mid 1970s, there was a clear division of labor: I shot the pictures, and the reporters did the interviewing. Today, photographers and videographers are often called upon to record both images and words.
Just as there are skills and techniques to image-making, there are skills and techniques to interviewing. Over the past 20 or so years, I’ve learned some of these skills and techniques through trial and error, working as a staff writer for Photo District News and, later, as a book author.
Recently, I just completed 30 oral-history interviews for a book about open-space preservation in California’s Silicon Valley. During this months-long process, I was reminded just how difficult a task interviewing can be. Here, then are six tips that may make your life easier if you need to obtain and record spoken information.
1. Do your homework.
Preparing for an interview can be as taxing and time consuming as preparing for a photography or video shoot. In some cases, it is clear why you are interviewing certain subjects, and what they will ultimately contribute to your story.
But in many cases, you need to ask yourself (or your editor) a series of questions: What information are you trying to obtain from this particular subject? How does this subject relate to the overall story? How will you corroborate what this person has to say? What if they are reticent, forgetful, or hostile? How will I know what questions to ask?
You may have the opportunity, on the Web or through other sources, to read or listen to what your subject has said to previous interviewers, or to learn more about his or her personal and professional life. But sometimes you’ll just have a name, a phone number, and a brief description of your subject’s relevance to your project.
2. Understand the different types of questions and know when to use them.
There are two main types of questions, open and closed (sometimes called open-ended and closed-ended). A closed question is one that can be answered either “Yes” or “No,” whereas an open question cannot. Open questions often begin with “Who,” “What,” “When,” “Where,” “Why,” or “How.” Open questions are generally more productive when it comes to interviews, because they require your subject to come up with a more detailed answer.
There are also special-purpose questions that come in handy for a variety of interview situations — for example, if you are having trouble getting your subject to open up and provide the information you need. James Glen Stovall, author of “Writing for the Mass Media” (Pearson, 2009), lists these questions as “hypothetical,” “agree/disagree,” “probes,” and “personal questions.”
A hypothetical question is in the form “What if…?” and is often contrary to fact — “What if the Axis powers had won World War II?” An agree/disagree question forces your subject to take a position — “Would you agree that tighter financial regulation might have prevented the current economic crisis?” A probe question often challenges your subject about something they just said, in order to elicit more information — “Describe her to me. Was she loud or soft-spoken? What was her management style?” And a personal question can entice your subject to relate something they might otherwise have not revealed.
3. Come prepared with a list of questions.
Think of everything you’d like to know from your subject, write down your questions, and then rank them in order of importance. Some subjects like to be given questions in advance, so they can prepare. Lead off with some easy questions — personal biography, how they became involved in whatever it is you’re discussing — and then get to the meat and potatoes of the interview.
Some people have a low tolerance for interviews and/or a limited time frame, and you don’t want to wear out your welcome before getting what you came for. You should have a core of questions designed to produce as much relevant information as possible.
Then it’s time to move to your wrap-up. I usually close with three stock questions. First, I ask my subject a hypothetical question, such as “What would Silicon Valley be like today if the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department had failed to preserve open space?” Second, I ask if I’ve forgotten to ask them anything they feel would be important to the project. This gives them the chance to add new information or reinforce and perhaps rephrase something they said earlier. And finally, I ask if I may contact them again should I need more information.
4. Silence is golden.
An interview is not a conversation; rather, a good interviewer asks a question and then shuts up. Resist the temptation to answer the question yourself, to put words in your subject’s mouth, or to fill in any awkward silences.
Silence can actually be a powerful interview tool, because if you say nothing after your subject finishes one train of thought, they will probably feel a bit uncomfortable and therefore continue talking, which is exactly what you want. Also, if you jump in with your next question, you may cut off someone who is a slow talker and miss some potentially great material.
If you are videotaping the interview or are planning to use the interview as part of an audiovisual presentation, avoid the common impulse to make your subject comfortable by saying “I see,” or “Uh huh,” or even “Hmmm.” All of these will be distracting and hard to edit out of your final production.
5. Be an active listener.
Having your list of questions is essential, but don’t become so focused on getting through your list that you miss hearing something important your subject is saying. Be ready to defer the next question on your list in order to probe more deeply into something your subject just said, to come up with a hypothetical or an agree/disagree question, or just to follow up and let your subject expand on the topic. Resist the urge to hurry through the interview, to get done.
Also, be sure to clarify anything you are uncertain about, perhaps by asking the question again; this includes the exact spelling of places and people’s names. Don’t worry about seeming stupid — your job is to translate the information from your source to your audience, and you can’t do that accurately and effectively if there are things you don’t understand. Actually, part of being an active listener is to verify with your subject the exact meaning of what they said, so there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Just to make sure I understand exactly what you mean, are you saying that…?”
6. It’s your show.
There are things you can do to increase the odds that your interview will be successful. Stovall advises controlling the situation and setting the tone of the interview early. I prefer to do interviews in a neutral setting free from distractions, such as a conference room, rather than in someone’s office. I’ll often do phone interviews but much prefer sitting down with my subject face to face.
I try to set a light tone, such as doing a sound check by asking my subjects what they had for breakfast and having a little discussion about the merits of their favorite food groups. I always let my subjects know how long I’d like to spend with them, and I try to stick to the schedule. I record my interviews using a digital recorder, and I always ask permission to record.
Finally, I make sure to show my appreciation for by subjects’ time and contribution to the project; everyone is important, even if they only contribute one piece to the puzzle. If it is a book project, I’ll thank them in the acknowledgments and also see that they get a copy of the book.
I hope these tips have been helpful, and that the next time you go out to do an interview, your experience will be a positive one. I’m sure some of you have additional advice about interviewing, and I’d love to hear from you!