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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