Researching for your novel: Effective Interviewing by Eric J. Gates

eric-j-gatesAs a writer you might be mistaken into thinking that knowing how to do professional interviews is not a particularly useful skill. You would, however, be wrong. I was a management consultant for many years and have interviewed hundreds of people professionally during this time. Eons ago, when I was starting out, I had the good fortune to be trained by some of the best. The techniques they taught me have proven themselves countless times and I still use them successfully today as part of my “writer skill-set”. When doing research, you will need to talk to people, irrespective of the writing genre you favour. Being able to do this efficiently and well is a great asset.

SPOILER ALERT!!! If you continue reading, you will never again look at your favourite news reporters or talk show hosts in the same way. I’m still amazed at how even some of the big names are lousy interviewers. I can think of at least a couple of examples of people who dominate interviews on TV… being the interviewer not the interviewee. I’m sure you are familiar with the situation: a half hour interview where the interviewer speaks for 20+ minutes, and you can’t remember almost anything the interviewee responded. That occasionally results in protagonist issues, such as jumping up and down on sofas (that’s “couches” for you in the colonies) for example (oblique reference to a Mr. Cruise).

Where to start? When I used to teach these skills to new consultants, the sessions on interviewing and active listening took a day and a half, albeit with role-playing exercises included. But I’ll try to be brief:

Before the interview.

If the interview is known about beforehand (i.e. not a spur of the moment event) then you MUST plan it.

Using a notepad (or tablet, if that’s how you roll) write out the objective of the interview, as a short phrase or collection of keywords, on the top of every page you use. This is to ensure you stay on track during the interview.

Then list your questions, ordered in a sensible fashion, so the interview flows smoothly. This is only a guide – you will quickly discover that it’s very easy to go off at a tangent if an interviewee mentions something that really piques your interest, but this method will help you find your way back. (More about this below).

The Questions

There are 3 types of questions, and it’s often not understanding this where the TV guys go wrong.

A CLOSED question can only be answered in binary fashion, that is to say black/white, yes/no, etc. Use these only to establish and check facts (whether previously known or stated during the interview). Some examples are:

Are you 83 years old?

You said you were born in London, correct?

Do you prefer tea or coffee, chocolate perhaps?

An OPEN question cannot be answered in binary fashion. You use these to elicit the maximum information about whatever interests you. How, what, when, who and where are typical question words for this kind of query, although be aware that using “where” can lead to a hybrid question if not careful. Examples include:

What did you think at the time?

Tell me how you crossed the Berlin Wall?

Where do you think the problem lies?

You should avoid HYBRID questions if possible. They can appear to be either Open or Closed, but offer both alternative response-modes to the interviewee; thus YOU lose control over the interview. Examples include:

How many siblings do you have? They could answer with a number (Closed) or tell you the life stories of all 13 (Open).

Do you prefer going abroad for your vacations or are you more of a stay-at-home type? Looks like a Closed question but again you may find yourself listening to an Open response.

A quick trick to help identify Hybrids is to apply the ‘WHY?’ prefix to the question itself. Then ask yourself if this is what you really wanted to know?

A variant of the Hybrid, used ad nauseam by bad interviewers, is the Open/Closed Bomb. You start with a nice open question, immediately followed by a closed addendum. For example:

How did you survive in your first years in Patagonia? Did you become a sheepherder?”

What are they going to answer? 80% of the time it will be the last question. When you wanted to elicit information about the interviewee’s initial trials and tribulations in this new country, what you heard was “No.”

That’s the basics. Easy when you get the hang of it. The trick is being able to combine the Open and Closed varieties in a fluid fashion. (Incidentally, Professional Interrogators use these techniques very successfully as well).

Now… Write the questions down. Why? So as not to get sidetracked by an interesting answer. By having a reference sheet, you can follow-up anything intriguing that’s said, then go back to your script, in a fluid manner. Without this, it’s too easy to finish an interview, take your leave, then realize half the questions are still unanswered. It’s called the “I should have asked him xxxx” syndrome, where xxxx is usually something important.

Note-taking during interviews.

Where possible avoid having to write down their replies as you go along. If the interviewee gives their permission, use a decent digital recorder. Check that it can record both questions and answers clearly – position of you and the interviewee – and that background noises don’t drown out the responses. Also have about 2 hours of recording time available (the trick is at least 100% more than you expect to use so that if your hapless victim does uncover an information gold mine, you don’t miss anything).

As a standby, have someone else annotate the responses. Why? This is so you can concentrate on the interviewee, what they are saying, and how they are saying it. That’s the important part of the interview, after all. See Active Listening below.

BIG GOLDEN RULE: if you do note-take, NEVER, EVER write down anything you don’t want the interviewee to read. What? I’ve seen this happen. I was once with a colleague doing an interview of a top Executive from a multinational. We had previously agreed I would ask the questions and control the interview and my colleague would just take notes. After a few minutes, it became apparent to both of us the Exec was full of BS (this is a technical abbreviation for Bilious Speaking) and he was trying to do a snow job on us. My colleague decided to note his appreciation of the usefulness of the interview by writing “This guy’s a w**ker” (translation – British definition for a purveyor of BS) on the top of his notepad. All was well until… the notepad was ripped from his hand and read by the Executive as soon as the interview finished. Looking back, it’s funny now, but it caused much trouble back then.

Starting and finishing.

Always start your interview stating who they are, who you are, the place, date and time, and the objective of the interview (for the record). Then get on with it. Don’t waffle.

Always finish by thanking them and leaving the door open. The best technique for this is what I call the “Statement confirmed” trick:

Thank you (their name) for your time and help. This is very useful for me. There’s a lot here, so I’m going to have to take some time to absorb all you’ve told me. If I have any further questions or need clarification of anything, I’ll get back in touch soon (the statement), if that’s all right with you? (the confirmation)”

99% of the time, you will have access to them again, when and if you need it.

Active Listening.

There’s a big difference between hearing and listening. In an interview, the latter is the only option.

Be aware of the context of the interviewee’s responses:

Are they in a country where they are not allowed to talk about certain subjects openly?

Is the subject matter “delicate”?

Do they manifest strong emotional involvement that could colour their responses?

Are they using terminology or concepts with which you have no familiarity (NEVER bluff, pretending you know what they are talking about)?

Are you getting conflicting or mixed responses?

Is what you want to know of such little importance to the interviewee that they are bored or downright hostile (passive or aggressive) towards you, the interview?

Be aware of whom you are questioning – the CEO may be giving you the company line, the production line worker will be able to tell you far more about the detail. Look for the essential data (the golden nuggests), but don’t discard the rest.

All of us have what are called “listening preferences”. These are opinions regarding certain people, professions, or whatever, that can easily colour our ability to extract the information we seek from an interview.

For example, suppose I hate Rap and Rappers, and I have to interview one of these Gangsta’ guys for needed research. It could happen that the BS they feel they have to say to fulfil their role-image completely switches off my ability to detect the information I seek. Be especially aware of your own preferences and how they can restrict you doing a good interview.

Use empathy, it’s an extremely effective tool. There’s a character on TV, played by Simon Baker, in the program “The Mentalist” who uses this to perfection. Watch and learn. Use false empathic anecdotes, if appropriate (“what a coincidence, my Dad was a cop too…” …er, no, he wasn’t, but I built a bridge based on apparent shared experience).

Use body language (lean slightly forward in the interviewee’s direction; nod from time to time as they speak; smile; make agreeing “noises” where appropriate; interact with the responses; maintain an open, receptive body posture – don’t cross arms or legs, or lean back) – also very effective.

Just how powerful are these techniques?

An anecdote from my distant past: As my professional reputation grew, Headhunters (the Executive Search variety, thank God!) started to contact me with offers to work for the competition. On one such occasion, I found myself in a room with an Executive from a potential employer, about to start an interview. Two things rapidly became obvious to me: the job was of no interest at all… and the interviewer had no idea of how to do an interview.

A “normal” reaction would have been to curtail the interview, thank the guy, state my lack of interest, and leave. But…

I’m still not sure whether I was having an inspired day, where my particular brand of the ridiculous triumphed over everything, or whether I just couldn’t give a damn. What I did, using the techniques outlined above, was take control of the interview. I questioned him about all sorts of issues, both personal and professional, finally thanking him for his time and escorting the hapless victim outside HIS OWN OFFICE! I closed the door and waited all of a minute before it opened slowly. The interviewer poked his head in and asked “WTF just happened?”

Yes, they work! Have fun.

Want more Techniques, Tips & Tricks from Eric J. Gates? See ‘How NOT to be an ASPIRING Writer’  

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