Dear Dr Deadline,
I feel I need some help with my interviewing technique. My problem is that I’m basically quite a chatty person and so I have this habit of interrupting my interview subjects in the middle of their sentences. If I tape one of my interviews, I find that just as they’re getting to an interesting bit, I hear my own voice saying something stupid like “ooh yes, that happened to my Aunt Vera” and then waffling on about that. Often there ends up being more of me on the tape than there is of them. As a result, I’m sure I’m not getting as much out of them as I ought to be. How can I stop myself?
[Long pause] There’s probably more words written about interview technique than about any other part of the journalist’s art. And as a rule, Dr D is pretty sceptical about the vast majority of them. Since no two interviews are ever quite the same, the Doc’s belief is that there is no such thing as an infallible formula for the perfect interview. Having said that, there are certain rules – no doubt you’ll have been taught them during your training – that it pays to bear in mind. And it sounds as though you’re breaking pretty much the cardinal one, what some might rather cruelly call Humphrys Law: It’s your subject’s view that counts Ã not your own.
One, admittedly trite, definition might help: A news interview is not a conversation. It’s a transaction. You, the reporter, want a story, which you want to obtain by giving questions to the subject. Like any transaction, you want to give away as little as you can – which means the fewer questions, the better.
Features interviews are rather different. Lynn Barber, one of our greatest interviewers, noted that her former colleague William Leith is a total chatterbox, yet still turns in good interviews. “Maybe,” she says, “he talks so much that they have to force their way in”. And in your case, it may occasionally be true that your Aunt Vera’s experience might spark something interesting from your subject.
But again, it pays to remember that while you’re talking, you’re not listening and not observing.
Either way, the crucial thing here is not to be afraid of silence. [Long pause]. It genuinely is amazing how many people fall into those silences with a golden, unguarded comment because they feel uncomfortable letting them hang.
John Sergeant once remarked that often the best journalists are the ones who look like they need a bit of help. [Long pause] That’s good advice for any of us.
Got any questions for Dr Deadline? Or do you disagree with his advice? E-mail him on firstname.lastname@example.org