LOOSENING LIPS

The Art of the Interview

Eric Nalder
Seattle Times


THE SET UP

RESEARCH: The best questions are informed questions. Whether you have five hours or five days, gather clippings and court records and talk to the subject's cohorts.

TACTICS: Make a tactical plan and discuss it with a friend or colleague. Whenever possible, I interview people close to the action, while they are actually doing whatever it is I am writing about. However, whistle-blowers and reluctant targets are best contacted at home. You can calm a nervous source by taking him or her for a walk. And if you arrange a lunch appointment you can force a person to spend at least an hour with you.

ORGANIZE: Write single-word clues on the flap of your notebook to remind you of issues you want to cover. Organize paperwork so you won't fumble with it as you talk. Begin with softball questions (i.e., a chronological life history), but prepare a comprehensive all-purpose question for cases where the door might slam in your face.

INNER INTERVIEWING: As a warm-up (maybe during your morning shower), imagine a successful interview. Reporters who don't believe they will get the interview or the information usually fail. As far as I'm concerned, no one should ever refuse to talk to me. It works.

THE OPENER -- The techniques of "inner interviewing" continue. Never approach your subject as though they seem menacing or likely to clam up. Appear innocent, friendly, unafraid and curious. If you are a hard-boiled, cynical reporter who talks out of the side of your mouth, you will need acting lessons.

PAY ATTENTION TO DETAIL: Inventory the room thoroughly and in an organized fashion. Look at the walls, read the top of the desk and study the lapel pin. You'll get clues and details for your story. Make notes on what you see.

LOOK FOR OTHER SOURCES: While at the interview, meet the secretary and the other co-workers and make note of details about them. This will come in handy as you turn them into sources.


RELUCTANT PEOPLE

KEEP IT GOING -- When the door is closing on your face, find common ground. "By the way, I notice you've got a poodle. I've got a poodle. Weird dogs. Just the other day . . ." As a person hangs up the phone, I quickly say I only want to explain what I am working on and they should at least know that. (They usually comment once they hear what I am doing). On one occasion I inadvertently repeated something that was inaccurate and a cop dragged out a report I wanted to see just so he could show me I was wrong. You've got to be quick, sincere, kind and courteous.

IT'S NO BIG DEAL -- Respond to the "I can't comment" by saying "You don't have to worry. Heck, you are just one of several people I've talked with. It's no big deal. Here's what I understand about the situation. Let's talk about this part a little bit . . . . (and then start talking about the information you want to confirm)." Notice that I avoid a debate over the reasons they don't want to talk with me. You'll lose that debate 9 times out of 10. Keep the conversation rolling.

SYMPATHY -- Respond to the "I'm afraid to comment" with a little sympathy and a lot of reassurance: "I understand your concern. These are tough times for your agency. But a lot of folks talk to me in situations like this, including people you work with. Let me at least cover a couple of things with you, it would help me a lot." Give glancing recognition to their concerns, but try to move right on to the point of the story.

PUBLIC OFFICIAL OR OTHER BIG SHOT -- Respond to the "no comment" from an "important" person or bureaucrat by saying: "You know, I feel bad about just putting a `no comment' in this story since the readers will think you are hiding something. Let's find a way to talk about this. Tell me about this, for instance . . . "

DOOR NO. 1, OR DOOR NO. 2? -- As a last ditch method with the reluctant public official or big shot, I say, "Look, whether you talk to me or not, I'm going to do a story on this. So you can have it one of two ways: Either I do a fair story that says that you refused to cooperate, or I do a fair story that has your point of view in it. Now which do you want?" They usually choose Door No. 2.

DETOURS -- If a person won't talk, go to others in his or her office or to associates. You will get more information, and by doing this you will loosen them up.

RATCHETING -- If a subject insists on talking "on background," take notes anyway. At the end of the interview, pick out a good quote in your notes that isn't too damning and say: "Now what about this thing you said here. Why can't you say that on the record?" If they agree to put that comment on the record, go to another one in your notes and say: "Well, if you can say that on the record, why can't you say this? And so on. I have gotten an entire notebook on the record this way. If they insist on anonymity, however, you must honor it.

ANONYMITY -- Don't accept information "on background" without a fight. Even if it means going back to them several times, try to convince people to go on the record. (Absolutely "off-the-record" information is useless, since you can't use it under any circumstance. Avoid it. It's a waste of time.)

FOR THE SAKE OF CLARITY -- There are cases where someone tells you part of a story and then balks, or you already know part of a story and can't get the rest. Try saying, "look, you've already told me this much (or, I already know this much). You had better tell me the rest. I mean, you don't want me to get it wrong, do you? For instance, what about this part here . . . (refer to something in your notes)."

PLAY LIKE YOU KNOW -- Ask the official WHY he fired the whistle-blower rather than asking WHETHER he did the deed. The question presumes you already know even if you don't have it confirmed. They'll start explaining rather than denying.

THE STATUE OF LIBERTY PLAY -- Emphasize that people are more believable when they put their name behind what they say. It's the American Way: A robust public debate.

LOST REPORTER -- It doesn't hurt to say you need the person's help. "Who is going to explain this to me if you don't?"

TRY AGAIN -- When the door is slammed in your face, try again a day or two later. People change their minds.



GETTING ALL THE GOODS

CHRONOLOGY -- Take the subject through his or her story chronologically. You will understand the tale better, and you will spot gaps in the timetable and logic.

HOW AND WHY -- When a person says something important, ask the key question: "How do you know that?" It sheds light on credibility, extracts more detail and is a door opener to other sources. Also, ask people why they do what they do, rather than just asking what they do.

SLOW MOTION -- When people reach the important part of a story, slow them down so you can get it in technicolor. Ask where they were standing, what they were doing, what they were wearing, what was the temperature and what were the noises around them? Then switch to the present tense, and ask questions like: What are you doing now? What is your friend saying? You and the interview subject will then re-enter the scene and walk through it together. If this fails, tell them it is not working. "I'm trying, but I just can't picture it yet. What did it feel like?" This is how you get a story, not a bunch of facts.

TELEPHONE -- Ask people on the phone to describe their surroundings (the plaque on a man's wall became a key detail in one story, after I had independently verified what it said). Get people to tell their stories in three dimensions (see the "slow motion" advice above).

USE YOUR EARS -- We talk too much during interviews. Let the other person do the talking. After all, you can't quote yourself. And check your biases at the door; listen with an open mind.

GETTING THE CONFESSION -- Ask the subject for the names of people who support him or her. Then ask for the names of people who would criticize. Then ask what those critics are likely to say. This will jar loose uncomfortable information and tips. Ask whether the person has ever been disciplined or fired on the job or in school, charged with or convicted of a crime, arrested for drunken driving, sued, testified in court, etc. Since all this stuff is on a record somewhere, people are reluctant to lie about it.

LIARS -- If you know someone is lying, allow the liar to spin his or her yarn. Don't interrupt except to ask for more detail. Deceivers frequently provide extensive detail because they think a very complete story will add to their credibility. Listen and take good notes. When the lie has been fully constructed -- down to the last nail -- go back and logically de-construct it. Don't be impatient. The fabricator is now in a corner. Keep them there until they break.

LIFE STORY -- Get the life story, even in cases where you don't intend to use it. Even when I interview a lawyer about a case, or a bureaucrat about a government policy, I get the life story if I have time. I get useful information and ask better questions as a result.

DON'T JOIN -- Be sympathetic in manner, but don't join sides with your interview sources. Don't get sucked in by the embattled congressman who seems so cooperative when he grants you an interview and says, "I don't believe in taking money from those guys." You should say, "that may be true, but I'm asking you whether you took the money, not whether you believe in doing so."

ASK AGAIN -- Sometimes it pays to interview a person two or three times on the same subject. One public official gave me four different and conflicting explanations for the trips he took at taxpayer expense.

REVIEW -- Go back over your notes with people. They will fill in gaps for you, and in doing so give you more information.

INNOVATE -- If an outrageous question comes to mind, ask it, even if it is terribly personal. There are no embarrassing questions, just embarrassing answers. Your chisel-like questions should chip away at all sides of an issue.

DRAIN THEM -- People aren't aware of how much they know. You must lead them through their memory. Visualize your subject as a bucket full of information and empty it.

HONESTY -- Don't pretend to be someone else and don't lie. You can certainly omit information, but the more you can reveal about the nature of your story, the more comfortable and helpful your subject will be.

BE THE DIRECTOR -- A great interview feels like a conversation but moves relentlessly toward the information you need. Keep control, but do so gently.

DON'T BE UNMOVABLE -- You may know what your story is about, but don't get stuck. A great interview will change your story.

PERSONALITY -- Let your personality shine through (if you have a good one). Don't be a blank wall.

OPEN-ENDED QUESTION -- Near the end of an interview, ask the person what else our readers might be interested in. Sometimes people have more than one newspaper-worthy story in them.

CHECK BACK -- After the story runs, call the subject for his or her reaction. You'll get additional stories and tips this way.





Eric Nalder
The Seattle Times
1120 John St.
Seattle, WA 98109
Phone: (206) 464-2056
Fax: (206) 464-2261
E-mail: enal-new@seatimes.com



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