That One Weird Trick That Makes Your Interviewees Spill Their Guts
Updated: Mar 10, 2020
You have to interview someone. For most of us, it's an intimidating prospect, about as appealing as doing your taxes. But there's one surefire way to make the subject of your interview do most of the heavy lifting.
It's So Obvious, It's Ridiculous.
Once I tell you what it is, you'll smack your forehead and say, why didn't I think of that?
Cops do it. Journalists do it. Detectives and human resource managers do it. What makes them so good at interviewing people? Simple. They shut up.
Many of us begin an interview with the best intentions. We prepare. We write up a list of questions we think will bring salient answers. We read previous interviews done with the subject. But once we press that little red button on our recorder and the conversation starts, we fail to get the amount or quality of information we were hoping for. Why?
For one thing, it's not a conversation. It's an interview. Not the same thing. You're there to let the subject wax philosophic, make a short story long, spill some secrets—whatever. It's not the time for you to tag a similar story onto theirs, or talk about your fantasy league draft picks, or share your recipe for spicy molasses pig knuckles. It's time to shut up and listen. I can be a talker, and I tend to empathize with my subjects to the point where I find myself rephrasing what they just said and repeating it back to them as a way to agree with their point. As an interviewer, it's one of my worst habits. I can't tell you how many times I've settled down at my computer to transcribe a long one-on-one with a prized interview subject and found myself yelling at my recorder, "Ednor! Shut the hell up! It's not about you!"
Also, the less you talk during the interview, the less transcription you have to do, and the sooner you can get down to actually writing. And here's a sweet technique that is well known to police officers, psychologists, reporters, and others who ask questions for a living: Give them enough room to answer completely. Let them fill the void. If the subject answers your question and you get the sense that there's more to it, don't say anything. Don't rush into the next question, don't feel like the space between you always has to be filled with words. Silence is your friend. When there's silence, people tend to fill it with more talking. Let it come from the interviewee, not from you.
As a parent, I can tell you that it's also an effective technique with children.
So there you have it. If you want to conduct more fruitful interviews and get your subject to reveal as much as they possibly will, use the top half of the phone more than the bottom half.