Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

Interviewing: How to Keep People Talking

So, I am helping a client write an article. She needs to interview some people for this article and it can only really be her who does it. She’s an engineer and she’s a little nervous because she has never done this before. She wanted some tips.

I have interviewed a lot of people. Not in the disingenuous-reporter way, but in the way of having a deep conversation that, hopefully, leads to understanding. I really, really want to know what the people I interview think and feel.

Here’s a generic interview list. To be sure, this doesn’t fit every situation, but you get the idea.

Before I wrote this post I did a quick google search on “Interviewing” and related terms. Most everything that came up was either about job interviews or pretty useless. Except for one written by the director Errol Morris. The gist?

Shut up and listen. But that’s not an easy thing to do.

I have no superlatives to explain how good Errol Morris is. The stuff he gets, the way he puts it together — just amazing. He has to be one of the best living interviewers. The film he won the oscar for, “The Fog of War” is basically just an interview with Vietnam Era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Morris also directs commercials and his work includes the Apple switch campaign.

So, to extend the ‘shut up and listen’ advice, here’s my two cents worth.

Don’t be a jerk, be prepared.

It means that you don’t need basic explanations for what you are talking about. You can get to the interesting stuff, right away.

In the moment, your intelligence is not all that useful.

It’s not your turn to show off with a really bright person. It’s your job to pull the best stuff out of the person you are interviewing. Humility and curiosity are the best tools for this job.

Your job is to keep them talking. Here’s my best two tricks.

Say the last few words they said, but give it a rising inflection. Give it a rising inflection? (yes!)

(pause) Yes. Utter silence. Let the pauses stretch to give them space to talk. But also to give them space to think.

Be patient, the first half is always a waste.

You have to talk to someone for at least thirty minutes before they will even think about telling you the truth. If you talk to someone long enough and you are sincere about listening to them, there will come a moment — more often than not they will literally lean in and say, “Okay, you here’s what I really think.” For me, that’s where the interview really begins.

If the subject is highly charged, you have to go back at least three times to get the truth.

I learned this from a defense attorney Wade Smith. He was defending a woman who killed her husband because he was beating the hell out of her. I happened in a small town in NC so nobody wanted to say anything. Her word against a dead man’s. He went back to the beauty parlor where his client worked three times. The third time they yelled at him, “We ain’t got nothing to say to you, why do you keep coming around?”

Wade said, “I’m sorry. I’m not here to bother you. I’ve walked all over this town and I’m not getting anywhere with anybody. But I’d just like to sit in the air conditioning for a minute.” Then he sat down and waited. Didn’t say a word. That’s when one of the defendant’s co-workers came forward and told him about how she would show up to work with bruises on her neck from where her husband had strangled her.

Yeah, shut up and listen. I guess that’s still the best tip in this post.

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I just finished writing a book. Here’s what I learned.

So I have just, as in just this very moment, finished my final edits on the sequel to The Soak, “Only Revenge Was Left”. I have released it to my able and talented editor Michael Waitz and I am, for the moment, done. The monkey is off my back. So here, in no particular order, are some of the things I’ve learned writing my seventh book.


I got much faster and better at writing the first draft. I used 25 minutes sprints and  was averaging 1700 words an hour. This, for me, is madness. I’ve never been able to do that before. And what’s more important about this is that the work was more fun. Here’s what made the difference: taking dead aim.

It’s a concept I encountered in Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, a compendium of tips and advice he used as a golf coach. What he observed was that when golfers stopped vaguely aiming and would instead focus on the exact spot they wanted to hit with their shot, they would get a better result.

Of course this is fascinating. But in the context of writing what I mean is you have a very specific idea of what your writing is supposed to do in that session. The confidence this gave me allowed me to be much faster and a much better author.


Shakespeare didn’t write original plays. What he did was find a story that he felt he could do something with and do it better than it had been done before. (see also The Spanish Tragedy) There are a bunch of reasons I think this is a good idea, not the least of which is readers don’t want something original, even when they say they do. I don’t, you don’t, nobody does. You know what’s pretty original? Ulysses by James Joyce. You know what’s not fun to read? Ulysses by James Joyce. It might be worth reading, but even people who have told me that it is the best book ever written have admitted, it’s not an enjoyable book.

What people want, in just about everything, is the same, but different. A fresh take on a new story. And that’s hard enough. My feeling now is, if I steal a great story to begin with, my odds are better of producing something really good.


So, I came across this quote while I was working on this book. To paraphrase “A work of genius is one in which the strengths overcome the flaws.”This was a big idea for me. The though that really great books, movies, plays and works of art weren’t great because they were perfect. Look critically at anything you really love and you will see this is true. And the thing is you have to make so many trade-offs when you’re telling a story – or making anything – there’s bound to be mistakes. So I stopped worrying about the mistakes so much and started worrying about making the good parts great. A huge breakthrough for me.


There is a tendency, at least I have the tendency, to hold on to good ideas too tightly. Thinking that I will use an idea later to make the perfect story are the perfect thing down the road. What I learned is if you have something that you can use, you should just use it. Not only do you not know if that hypothetical other thing is going be any good, you actually don’t even know if  are going to be alive later. Play your best game right now and trust that your brain will generate more good ideas.

I’ll post both an audio and text excerpt in that chapter when I’m a little further along in the process. Right now I just want to revel in the fact that it’s good and it’s done.


 Another Facebook post will change nothing. Write the book.


Halfway through this book I almost quit. Partially because I was frustrated with the work, but partially because I’ve got a lot of life going on. I’ve got a nice marriage, great four-year-old son who is so much fun right now, and I’ve a daughter on the way. I also work full-time. So in some ways it’s both exhausting and selfish to spend this much time and effort on writing books. But it was only after I got very stubborn and stupid about finishing this book – for no other reason than because I started it, that I learned all these things.

“Only Revenge was Left” will be available August 15. Maybe sooner, but don’t push me, people.  I’m gonna have a newborn in the house.


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Self-Defense Against Ideas

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I never run out of ideas. Sometimes it feels that they swarm all over me like insects. Biting me and waking me in the middle of the night, causing me to itch and scratch and worry at them until I am distracted, confused and exhausted.

This is, as you might imagine, a problem. But it’s a problem for several reasons. One, I like sleep. Two, I don’t have time to execute all these ideas. And, Three, most ideas aren’t very good.

This is especially a problem this time of year. I’ve talked to a few friends and they have the same experience. Things slow down, the brain gets whirling, and the next thing you know, you’re going in a bunch of different directions on a bunch of projects you never should have started in the first place. Such is the curse (or one of the curses) of being creative.

But I have come up with a checklist that really helps me weed out ideas and projects I don’t want to pursue. Maybe it will help you.

  1. What’s the project?
  2. What’s the goal?
  3. What’s the plan? (steps)
  4. What do you need to learn?
  5. who else can help you?
  6. What are you afraid of?
  7. Is it worth doing?
  8. Is the goal something you really want?
  9. Will the project reach the goal easily and quickly?
  10. Who’s going to buy/consume/use this?
  11. What’s the very next action?

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