What Makes for a Good Interviewer?

I’ve found myself thinking, lately, about what makes a good interviewer. Well, the truth is that I’ve found myself saying a few times recently “Person X is a terrible interviewer!” I’ve become a dedicated podcast listener, and so I must be listening to a lot more interviews. Here’s what I’m thinking to start my list:

Ask questions with the audience in mind.

If they’re not familiar with the person you’re interviewing, you might need to ask some questions to help establish the subject’s credibility as an authority. Don’t count on the bio to give us the big picture— have your first few questions “build the container” for the rest of what you’ll talk about.

Have respect for your audience’s intelligence. 

I think the thing that makes me scream “how do you do this for a living” at an interviewer most often is the asking of patently obvious questions. I’m listening to an interview with Joan Didion, and the interviewer asks (all quotes paraphrased) “you’ve said you think that people regard you as an essayist more than as a fiction writer. Why is that, do you think?” Didion deadpans “because my nonfiction has outsold my fiction by a large margin.” I recently heard an interviewer ask the producer of Letterman’s show whether they got permits for dropping things off the roof. The producer laughed in her face and said “did you really just ask that? Of course we did. We repeatedly dropped large things off a tall building in a populous city. We could have killed people. Of course there were regulations we had to follow, and we followed them.” She’s a famous interviewer with a long history, and frankly, after a couple of her interviews with people I find fascinating, I couldn’t stand her anymore and had to stop listening.

Now, let me say that although I’ve published some interviews (usually recording a bit for a podcast), I don’t consider myself an expert interviewer. I recognize that at least one of the two examples I cited, unlike interviews I’ve done, was conducted in front of a live audience, and the inevitable non-starter question that doesn’t go, in real life, as it did in your head, happened to her live and they didn’t cut it out of the recording, so she’s stuck with no way to spin it. Also, I’ve never interviewed someone in an investigative, hold-their-feet-to-the-fire way, so compared to that, these are going to sound a little touchy-feely. But here are the things that I do, as an interviewer, to be sure I’m not wasting people’s (the subject’s, the audience’s, mine…) time. Let me know what you think of these, or if you think I’ve missed anything.

I research the interviewer and their area of expertise.

To the extent possible, I get a sense for what the basics are and what’s interesting about what they’re going to say. Like a lawyer, for the majority of my questions, I want to go in with a strong idea of what they’re going to say, so that I can capture the best from them.

With that said, I go in with more questions than I need, because sometimes, you get a one-word answer, and I’m almost never going to publish that.

To a degree, interviews are live, and they depend on the moment. If someone answers question 5 in their answer to question 2, I need to be sure that I’ve got other good questions to ask.

I think about what makes for a good audience experience.

I like written interviews to progress mostly logically— if questions feel like they’re in no particular order, I start to feel like the interviewer hasn’t prepared well. I start with questions to help establish the speaker as an interesting person with something to offer my audience. Then, I try to take the audience deeper into the person’s expertise or give them something challenging or compelling, and I try to leave the reader with some sense for where the person’s work will take them next, or their prediction for the future.

I ask some challenging questions, but…

I don’t shy away from controversy— if I think my audience is going to challenge the subject’s approaches/conclusions, I try to raise the obvious criticisms of the person’s theory. I think there’s a difference between this and true holding-their-feet-to-the-fire, though, because chances are good that they know that, for example, my audience overwhelmingly believes x, and as an outspoken critic of x, s/he has to be able to argue against it with some level of articulation and consideration. I just don’t do it in “gotcha!” fashion, which I think can be disrespectful of someone who’s consenting to be interviewed, usually for free. Also, people can ask you to pull the interview after the fact, and in most cases, you have to do that. Nobody likes to waste their time.

Make room for more than you prepare for.

I often end with some variation of “what question do you wish I had asked, that I didn’t” or “what’s one thing that you wish our readers knew about you/your work/this issue,” because sometimes, it’s where the magic happens. Especially if we didn’t hit our stride, conversationally (Interviews are partially about chemistry). Other times, it’s a non-starter. “I can’t think of anything” or “I think we mostly covered it” are valid answers.

I remember who the interview subject is.

You read my blog—you know I’m a bit of a rambler. But I try to be more concise as an interviewer, making sure that my questions are brief, clear, and to the point, letting my subject do the talking.

I try to get people to talk in stories and examples.

I think that’s what’s compelling— not “just the facts,” but the personal anecdotes and illustrations people use to make meaning of it all.

I spend a lot of time making my subject comfortable.

I want them to know that we’re on the same team— that I want them to be smart and quotable, just like they do, and so does the audience. If you listen to the recordings of my interviews (not publicly available, thank goodness), you hear me encourage and affirm my interview subjects left and right. “Sure…” “Mmm hmm…” “That makes sense…” “Interesting…” “That’s great…” You don’t read that in the final copy, but I think it’s an important part of what I do. People who feel defensive are less quotable, because they’re carefully controlling their image. If they know that I’m basically there to signal-boost their life’s work, not trying to catch them in a gotcha, they can relax into the conversation a little, and more personality shows through.

I don’t always let the subject read the questions in advance, but I do give them a good sense for who my audience is, what my outlet is, and why I want to talk to them.

It’s part of making them comfortable, to know where I intend to focus. I don’t necessarily let the subject read the question, because pre-scripted answers sound stilted.

I vet my questions in advance.

I bounce my questions off someone who has some degree of familiarity with the interview subject. They can sometimes see angles that make the questions more interesting, or can see problems in my questions to which I’m blind.

Because the majority of the interviews I’ve done have been in print, you get a pretty boiled-down version of the conversation when you read the article. I normally interview for like, 90 minutes, and you get maybe a third of what was said. Also good to remember as a reader— people aren’t normally as targeted, polished and articulate in real life, so if you’re feeling insecure about that, stop. Here’s how I cut it down.

I boil down the false-starts, ums and ahs, etc.

This is part of making the interview subject seem credible. It’s worth keeping in mind that interviewers can make you look good or bad, by the editorial choices they make. I try to make my subjects look good. I cut down their searches for the right word or expression so that you get the important part of what they say, not the meandering it can sometimes take to find that important part.

I try not to clean it up completely.

The interview subject’s voice— they expressions they use, the oddities of their phrasing, can go a long way toward humanizing them to the audience. I do pull out verbal tics (y’know? like…), but I try to leave the flavor of their language.

I cut repetition.

As a rambler, I’m often significantly above my maximum word count, even when someone else is doing the talking. I’m not afraid of long pieces (she says, as the word-count on this piece grows ever higher). We repeat ourselves a lot— even more in speech than in writing. I cut a lot of that.

As I mentioned before, I tend to favor anecdotes over data.

I feel like the advantage to an interview as a form is the humanizing aspect. If I’m looking for data, I’m probably approaching it in a different kind of piece, where it’s easier to cite and formally structure an argument. Interviews aren’t a great place for a discussion of formulae and in-depth research methodology, unless your audience is really, really technical (and I’d contend, not even there.)

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