Weekly Journal

The Art of Interviewing


31st August 2017

Interviewing is a two-way street. The interviewer seeks to draw out stories, gather information, achieve a certain creative or commercial purpose. The interviewee has their own story to tell, sometimes selling a point of view, protecting information, ensuring the truth be told. Sometimes they have a compatible agenda, say, the pursuit of truth, the best possible communication of facts. Sometimes, the relationship is adversarial, with each seeking to gain advantage or advance an agenda.

At the Content Castle, we explored case studies of how to excel at each. I have been on both sides of the microphone in business and journalism over many years, and enjoy both being the subject and being the interrogator. I have interviewed hundreds of subjects, from politicos such as Cesar Chavez, John McCain and Nancy Pelosi to artists and public intellectuals such as Norman Mailer, Malcolm Gladwell and Christopher Hitchens. I think it’s my favorite creative and professional task. The key to both is the ability to build genuine rapport and conversation, to bring your humanity and a sense of style to that moment of truth. And to persuade your adversary/ partner that you are truthful as you will be most effective if your sincerity and conviction are credible.

For my nonfiction travelogue “WAR: The Afterparty”, I circumnavigated the globe seeking out new narratives on the aftereffects of U.S. military interventions. I interviewed ex-presidents, mujahadeen, army officers, mothers, artists, mullahs, historians and journalists, among others. I had many years experience on television doing long-form interviews, but this was a unique experience with unique learnings. 

Ghafar Haidary is a large man, graceful in his movement. I notice his hands, large and elegant and likely able to snap my neck like a twig. He was an early mujahedin, or “holy warrior” against the Soviet occupation. Here he shows me how to properly wear a pakol hat…

How To Get An Interview

I was dropping into countries and cultures for brief stretches, claiming no credible employer (newspaper, publisher, organization). I needed to find the right subject, get their attention and commitment, then meet and earn their confidence, all as I asked often personal and painful questions about war. I had three strategies for getting interviews during my expedition. One, find an expert or contact in the field and ask for introductions. Two, ask people I met while traveling for intros and contacts. Three, just show up.

Showing up doesn’t always work. I showed up at the fabled La Prensa newspaper in Managua, ground zero for the beginning of the Nicaraguan revolution that overthrew the Somoza family dictatorship in 1978. First time, security sent me away as the office was closed due to a national holiday. Second time, a very young editorial assistant came out to see what I wanted. But she gave me the card of the editor-in-chief who once attended an Aspen Institute event. So did I, which established a connection, and resulted in a critical lengthy interview. Persistence is a virtue.

Find an expert or contact in the field and ask for introductions

People are more willing to help than you might imagine and social media allows for inquiries with ease and intimacy previously not possible. In your mind, you are not worthy. But there is something in human psychology that skews to connectedness and responsiveness. When you are researching a book or an article, surprise yourself. Look people up — their contact details can be readily available via Facebook, Twitter and published emails—and ask for help. A personal intro is best, but something as simple as, “You are a highly esteemed person in your field, may I tell x that you thought I should reach out to them?”

“I had three strategies for getting interviews during my expedition. One, find an expert or contact in the field and ask for introductions. Two, ask people I met while traveling for intros and contacts. Three, just show up.”

Leverage your contacts

However thin the connection, asking for an interview by saying you are associated with a name or institution trusted by your prospect will get you much closer. I spent six hours with the leading mullah in Afghanistan by asking a young devout Afghan if he could get me a meeting with an Islamic scholar or mullah to better understand Islam. His best friend’s father turned out to be the head of Kabul’s largest mosque. As a result of that intro, after pushing for days for a connection, I was warmly welcomed at the mosque, a Jew whose country was invader and occupier.

People can sniff out sincerity 

When I traveled, I had, in my mind, 90 seconds to get someone’s trust, to persuade them that I was who I said I was and that my intentions were transparent and legitimate. Sincerity, expressed in person or remotely via voice or text, is powerful. In product sales, you may be sincere, but you are selling a product for cash and that colors the transaction. As a writer, you may borrow certain sales techniques and sensibilities, but there is an opportunity to represent yourself as a seeker of truth, beyond personal gain.

People want to tell their stories

Show genuine curiosity and respect for the story that your subject may hold and position the interaction as their opportunity to share who they are or what they know or have experienced. The response is often magical. We are storytellers as a species and while you want and need something — their time and responses — people need to express themselves.

Kabul, Afghanistan. I met Sami (on the right) via Couchsurfing. He picked me up at the airport, got me lodging at a guesthouse, translated for me and showed me the city. The woman on the left is Hazara, a persecuted Shia religious minority; she lost her leg in a mortar attack during the civil war. Next to her is her Austrian boyfriend decked out as an Afghan.

Find what interests you and follow that trail

Your first obligation as an interviewer is to get the data you came for. What was the assignment? Are you sure, have you written down your objectives, your priority questions? Good. Make sure you get that covered. But your interview subject will open up if they sense that you are listening. Care about what they are saying. Come prepared with questions that interest you, apart from the required raw material, and ask spontaneous follow-up questions, weaving a story as you go. In acting, there is a concept called the “through-line.” Everything the actor does and says is motivated by achieving their objective, often not evident until the end of the movie or play. As you conduct your interview, consider what story themes are emerging and engage the interviewee with passion, respect and interest.

Prepare your physical environment and recording tools

Finally, whether you are recording for audio or video use, or just for notes and transcription, make sure your physical environment is right. Avoid noisy, distracting interview settings unless essential to the context, and try to have redundant recording devices in case one fails. Test your gear ahead of time.

Interviewing is more than just an editorial or narrative function. It is an opportunity to examine the human condition, to find out what makes remarkable people tick, to draw out fresh insights via the art of conversation. Be prepared, be open, be persistent, be confident and, when appropriate, try to have some fun.

Interested in learning more on the art of interviewing? Feel free to contact us with any questions! 

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