Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

What I Can Talk About

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Kenny

You can tell you’re talking to a professional if, in the course of the interview, they say something like “What I can talk about is …” But it’s not a good sign about how the interview is going. I’ve talked a lot about what interviewers do to get an interviewee on track. But sometimes, an interviewee has to get an interviewer back on track. Usually, an interviewee says this when an interviewer is getting too personal, or asking the interviewee to talk about things beyond their realm.

I just listed to John Goodman being interviewed for his part as Sully in Monsters University. Out of the corner of my ear, I heard him say this phrase, which to me, sounded like a car alarm going off, and I swung around in my chair. One of the CBS This Morning anchors had asked him something like, did he have any idea the movie would be as successful as it had become. And Mr. Goodman spoke to what he knew, which was his passion for the part. How could he possibly have known whether the movie would’ve been successful? It’s the kind of blue sky, prognosticator question that makes the audience tear out their hair. Interviewers ask stuff like that when they don’t have anything more substantive to ask. Or maybe, in that situation, they ask it because their producer has only given them two minutes for this segment before the break, “So get him to say something cutesy or something deep, but remember, only two minutes.”

I once snagged an interview with Kenny Rogers. He was playing in Nashua, NH and I was working at a closed circuit radio station near Boston. When I got there, it was a press pool type of situation. A side room had been set up for the media and there were probably about 15 or twenty reporters from different media there. I had three or four questions. And this was in the days before the Internet, so I had gone to the library and looked up newsclips about him. My questions were about how his style had changed since he had left The First Edition, and about his strained relationship with his daughter. And even though I was new to interviewing, I noticed everybody else was asking questions about his tennis game. They were yukking it up. I guess they were thinking, “We’re just shooting the shit with Kenny,” like this opportunity comes up everyday. But I thought, “What the Hell?” I knew this was work, so I asked my questions. When he started to answer, everybody dropped their heads and started writing. When it was done, and he left to get ready for his show, his publicity person came up to me and said, “You asked the best questions.”

I’m not working at a CBS or a CNN. But hackers who created Linux don’t work for Microsoft either. What I’m saying is the rules for being good at what you do aren’t just the domain of the big names. Little gals and guys out here with podcasts and field recorders and Audacity can do it good, and do it right. And sometimes, that not only means asking questions with meat, but not trying to take your guest outside of where they want or need to be. Only your research can help you draw those boundaries. And if you’ve done a good job, you’ll be surprised at just how big that space can be.

P.S. About gals doing it good and right, Constance A. Dunn on Soundcloud is doing some great interviews with Serbian thinkers and musicians. Ren Green at KBOO is rocking her author interviews on her new podcast, “Experience Points”, just like Courtney Crosslin with her guests at haveawonderful.com and Deanna Woodward, The Veteran’s Coach. Give them all a listen.

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