Greasing the wheels

QUESTION: What interview techniques are best for getting sources to open up?

In some of the best “interviews” I’ve done, I’ve asked only one question: “Hi, how’re you doing?” The subject has started talking and I’ve just gone along for the ride. As long as I’m getting the information I need, I’m quite happy to sit there and take notes.

People like this will invariably say halfway through, “Oh, I’m rambling.” Let ’em ramble! When the person finally runs out of steam, then’s the time to ask whatever questions might be necessary to fill in missing details.

On the other hand, I recently had to “doorstep” a serial bigamist and con-artist who didn’t want to talk at all. Before he could close the door, I gabbled out that I was writing about him whether he talked to me or not and that, while it would be nice to get his side of the story, I didn’t need it. He opened the door again and, for the next hour, told me exactly why he didn’t want to talk.

I led him along by hanging admiringly on his every word and occasionally throwing in a question, which he would answer by telling me why he wouldn’t answer it. Vanity about his lurid past made him want to tell me just enough to keep me interested and I played on that — conned the conman, if you like.

There was no way I could produce a notebook or recorder — that would have silenced him instantly. So I frantically memorized his better quotes and when the photographer and I left, we sat in the car and I scribbled down everything that the two of us remembered the guy saying.

Those are extreme cases but they show that there’s no hard-and-fast rule about the right way to interview someone. You have to learn to develop very fast first impressions of a person and decide on the fly what technique is likely to produce the best results.

You may have to delay producing your notebook or recorder if it seems that they might inhibit whoever you’re interviewing. Start off by asking bland, off-topic questions and after a little while, say, “That’s worth writing down. Do you mind?”

Once the notebook is out, ask a couple more innocuous questions and by then your subject should hardly be noticing that you’re taking notes. Quite often, as your subject relaxes you can change your approach and either slacken off or become more aggressive.

Sometimes — once you have enough information for a decent story — you can start asking really edgy questions. It doesn’t matter if the subject clams up or throws you out, you already have a story. And you just might get a couple of interesting answers.

I was interviewing an actress once for a routine story done in conjunction with her latest movie. I wanted to try for more than that so before the actress arrived, I asked the publicist if there was anything she didn’t want to talk about. And the publicist fell for it: “Thank you for asking! Yes, her marriage is in trouble and I know she doesn’t want to be asked about that.”

I didn’t lie to the publicist. I didn’t say I wouldn’t ask. But at the end of the interview, I threw in a question about her marriage. She was surprised, flustered and angry but, before she declared that the interview over, she effectively confirmed the break-up with enough of a quote about her spouse to make it interesting. Sure, the publicist felt burned but should’ve known better. My conscience was clear.

You’d be too embarrassed to do that? Yes, it can be embarrassing sometimes but remember: Your subject is probably embarrassed too. You know why you’re embarrassed and what you’re trying to do so that puts you in control.

Don’t be afraid to use silence. If your subject is reluctant to say much, don’t feel you have to keep asking questions. Just stay quiet, look at the person steadily and chances are it’ll be he or she who breaks the silence. It’s simple human nature.

If the interview’s not producing much of interest or the subject is keeping the answers short and dull, throw in an incongruous question: “How would you like to die?” or “Tell me something I have no right to know.” The object isn’t so much to get a direct answer (although you might get something interesting once in a while) but more to see how the subject reacts. It could be good colour for your story and it may liven up the interview a bit.

If you’re working with a photographer, it can be good to involve him or her in the interview; make it a three-way conversation rather than a two-person Q&A session. It becomes less of an interrogation and the subject may become more relaxed. You do need a photographer who knows when it’s time to stop talking and let you get on with what you need to ask. Don’t be afraid to say, “Shut up and shoot.”

Unless it’s an interview where I need to really know what I’m talking about to be able to ask decisive and relevant questions and not be fobbed off with half-truths and evasions, I do the minimum of research beforehand.

I’ll say up-front, “I’m going to ask some questions that are really basic and possibly dumb. But bear with me.” It flatters the person — you’re saying in effect, “You know everything and I know nothing” — and sometimes dumb questions get really interesting answers. When the interview’s over, I know how much I need to research at the office to fill in the background.

And remember, sometimes the best and most important question you can ask is, “How’re you doing?”

* Bill Taylor is a feature writer at the Toronto Star and has worked at newspapers in Britain and the United States. He’s been a journalist for 40 years.