Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview


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Wanda Sykes 2

How, as an interviewer, can you have a dream and a nightmare all rolled up into one?  When you’re about to interview somebody you really like and admire, but you’ve only got them for 15 minutes and you have an hour worth of questions.   When you face a crunch like that, it requires a re-think of what the purpose of the interview is.

As an interviewer, there several interviewing arcs you can follow.  One of them might have you starting out with personal history stuff to help establish the interviewee with the audience; where did you grow up, what did you do as a kid … stuff like that.  Then, you might talk about how they started doing what they’re known for and elaborate on some of the recognition or success they’ve had for doing it.  Then, you might mention controversies or criticism of how they’ve done it and how they felt about that criticism and how they overcame it.  And you might end with a, “So, what’s in your future?” type of question.

That’s a perfectly legitimate way to talk to somebody you don’t know.  It’s comprehensive.  It covers the bases.  But sometimes, it’s not enough.  Sometimes, the person you’re talking to is so awesome that you don’t want to be stuck asking “standard” questions.  But interviewees are used to standard questions and venturing too far outside the box can spook them.  You want them to know that you know they deserve to be seen as more than a cardboard cutout.  So what to do?

What I did was be as honest and straightfoward as I could be from the outset.  When I talked with actor and comedian Wanda Sykes, I started out by telling her that ordinary people come to her shows for her comedy, but they also listen to how she had dealt with challenges in her own life; a double mastectomy, coming out as lesbian, a mixed race marriage, betrayals she describes by Fox for the cancellation of two shows.  All of us can relate to marriage, medical issues, betrayal, social acceptance and courage.

Something else I did was ask her if there was anything she wanted to make sure she mentioned.  Normally, interviewers don’t do that, and guests probably don’t expect it because interviewers are expected to know what to ask and interviewees are expected to follow along.  But again, interviewees aren’t one-dimensional and maybe they don’t spontaneously talk about what’s important to them because interviewers don’t give them the option.  That can be a tricky one.  The point was to let Ms. Sykes know that the conversation is about her and it’s conceivable that there are things deep in her heart that she might want to mention that my research didn’t uncover.  So I offered.

That also meant that in the course of the conversation, unnecessary questions got thrown out.  Questions that, in retrospect, I could see were fluff questions.  It’s not that they weren’t good questions, but for the time I had, they weren’t deep enough, personal enough and wouldn’t touch people fast enough. That’s why, if you’re an interviewer, it is absolutely your responsibility to do your research in advance.  That gives you time to sift through your questions and cull the herd depending on how much time you really have, not how much time you think you’ll have. And it gives you a chance to figure out which questions will really matter to people.  Because the thing that matters to a listener is “How much are they like me”?

It’s OK to follow a flexible template when interviewing.  But sometimes, even that has to be thrown out.

You can hear the conversation here and here.

Written by Interviewer

January 11, 2014 at 03:13

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