Here is the one weird trick to being really good at interviewing: Sound like a babbling idiot.
It’s worked for me. I know people who might suggest I had a head start on that, but that’s only because they know me.
Early in my career as a newspaper and radio reporter, I interviewed governors, senators, captains of industry, sergeants of police. It was a little intimidating for a college kid whose biggest accomplishment in life up to that point was inventing a recipe that consisted of adding an egg to ramen noodles.
I compensated by seeming to be an equal who was worthy of speaking to these people. Or, more accurately, I thought I was appearing that way. I suspect I was looking more like a jerk with a chip on his shoulder.
So, I got pretty lousy quotes. In fact, I learned that cops have a way of just staring through you until you confess everything you’ve ever done wrong. Then you invent transgressions just to get them to stop staring.
After taking a look around the couple of newsrooms where I was working part time, the habits of good interviewers became apparent.
I learned I was doing two things wrong: I was being inauthentic and I was not engaging the interviewee. In this month’s interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, Brad Phillips shares some excellent insight regarding how to engage an interviewer and much of it is also true on the other side of the media table.
As Brad describes it, success on both sides is a matter of perspective. On the interviewee side, it is not about the interviewer but about the audience receiving the message. On the interviewer side, I had to learn that the interview was not about me – it was about the information contained within the interviewee.
Understanding that, I became deeply curious about what people knew. I brought the perspective of the reader or listener to the discussion – what would they ask if they were in my place? I realized I was privileged to be that representative. I was no longer concerned about what interviewees thought of me, and my authentic self showed up.
The next step was engaging the interviewee. I found that intense curiosity can be a little unnerving. Creepy even.
Interrogation was not working, so I listened to my betters once again. I noticed that they asked for help in understanding issues. They said things such as, “I didn’t get that, can you explain that for me?” and “This is a bit over my head, can you break it down a little bit for me?” People are flattered to be considered experts and want to help others. They tended to be certain I understood their issues and went out of their way to provide information.
That was effective for “friendly” interviews. It went only so far in more combative interactions. I had a few of those when I covered the police and courts in Luzerne County, Pa., a place so corrupt that between it and neighboring Lackawanna County, three county judges, two county commissioners and two state senators were among 31 public officials recently prosecuted by federal authorities.
In those cases, I told little of what I knew and stumbled a bit in my questions. Officials insulated by hubris and entitlement thought I was just a harmless idiot. I let them talk and talk and talk, explaining everything in minute detail. Then I’d take the data and their comments and start typing.
They’d call back the next day, infuriated about the article. “Sorry to upset you,” I’d say. “Please help me understand your points a little better.” Then they’d talk and talk and talk. They seemed to make sense to themselves, but when their words met reality, reality was baffled.
If you are doing wrong or making mistakes and try to bluster through a reporter, that’s exactly what it will look like. That’s another of Brad’s excellent points.
If you are helpful and are genuinely excited about your message, that will project through media. I know that I have often wanted to help someone get their message out when I felt an affinity for them. It’s only human.
That was the final and perhaps most important lesson that Brad had to convey. He told of someone who got a glowing USA Today article simply because he treated the reporter like a human being.
The media is merely a mirror. What face do you want to present to the world?