Use names. Establish ground rules. If you’re taping, get permission on tape.
Be honest. You don’t want to trick or trap.
Be fair. What’s identified as “off the record” stays that way, but you can try to redraw the boundaries. How about if I put it this way . . . ? Perhaps, you’d be comfortable with . . . ?
No matter what, take notes. Be nice. This is a relationship.
Do your homework. Ask interesting questions—things you’d like to know. Ask, even if you think you know the answer to something, for you may hear that you have it wrong. Look for the open-ended territory. Look for reflection and story. Take notes on how your subject speaks. If it is a live interview, notice everything about him and the setting.
Batch your questions. Sort them by early life, professional life, romantic life, disappointments, advances, rivalries . . .
Think through the narrative structure to your interview. What will you use as a warm-up and where will you go from there, and from there? But be prepared to deviate to follow something of interest that occurred in the moment. Be nimble.
Put your questions in writing. Keep them brief. Start with the easier ones and move to the more difficult. You probably won’t ask them all. And you will ask things you only just thought of.
Ask one thing at a time. Compound questions like Why did you do this and do you have any regrets? usually result in the second half left unanswered.
Seek clarification. Why do you say that? What makes you so sure? Excuse me, did you say . . . ? I just want to get it right.
And then? is a good way to keep it rolling.
Everyone is busy. Don’t waste time.
Talk as little about yourself as possible. It’s about him, not you.
And if you act like you know what you’re doing, you’ll be given the benefit of the doubt. This is not an excuse for ignorance, bluff, or bravado. It’s confirmation that serious people will be taken seriously.
The Potential Problems
Those who are used to being the subject of attention can be quite skilled at answering something different than what was asked. You have to stay the course and redirect them to your questions.
Those who are new to attention might be nervous, even guarded. The challenge is to establish trust.
If you’re worrying about the next question, you’re missing out.
Uncomfortable silences have an upside. If your subject hesitates or averts his eyes in an awkward moment, do not help him out! Stay silent. Likely he will rush in to fill the gap, and most often, this will be with valuable, unscripted material.
If a subject seeks approval of your final product, the answer is no. I have, however, agreed to “Just don’t make me look like a fool.” In that instance, there was little danger of it, so I opted to build trust.
And as for running direct quotes by a person before use, I rarely do it. Hindsight is too sanitizing. I will, on the other hand, assure my subjects that if I run into confusion, I will follow up to ask for clarification, as it’s in both our interests to get it right.
If it all goes bad—and it can happen—close your notebook and walk away. Politely. Quietly. There’s always another way at the material.
The Mop Up
Finish well. Send a thank you.
And if you’ve promised the finished piece, be sure to send it.
Photo credit: RCA microphone – H. Michael Miley; other mic – Arbyreed