Reporting 101: When Doing the Interviewing, Don’t Act So Smart

The writer John McPhee once wrote a New Yorker piece, “Elicitation,” about how to do good interviewing. The article’s most entertaining sections were about the reporting he did for the profiles of Jackie Gleason and Richard Burton that he did for Time before he joined the New Yorker.

The part of the piece I found most interesting was his strategy for getting people to talk by using both a tape recorder and taking notes. Here is some of what he said:

From the start, make clear what you are doing and who will publish what you write. Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license. While the interview continues, the notebook may serve other purposes, surpassing the talents of a tape recorder. As you scribble away, the interviewee is, of course, watching you. Now, unaccountably, you slow down, and even stop writing, while the interviewee goes on talking. The interviewee becomes nervous, tries harder, and spills out the secrets of a secret life, or maybe just a clearer and more quotable version of what was said before. Conversely, if the interviewee is saying nothing of interest, you can pretend to be writing, just to keep the enterprise moving forward.

If doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb. You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit. Evidently, you need help. Who is there to help you but the person who is answering your questions? The result is the opposite of the total shutdown that might have occurred if you had come on glib and omniscient. If you don’t seem to get something, the subject will probably help you get it. If you are listening to speech and at the same time envisioning it in print, you can ask your question again, and again, until the repeated reply will be  clear in print. Who is going to care if you seem dumber than a cardboard box? Reporters call that creative bumbling.

At the Washingtonian, I encouraged young writers to focus more on listening when doing interviews. I worried that young writers would want to impress the interviewee by showing how smart they were and would talk too much.

We had one smart writer, Larry Van Dyne, whose forte was explanatory journalism—he had degrees from the University of Missouri and Harvard and he wrote about everything from where the region’s drinking water came from to how to rob a bank. He told me he read a lot before he started interviewing but didn’t always let the interviewee know that he knew a lot. He explains that strategy:

“I used ‘creative bumbling’—nice term for it—but I always believed in doing lots of homework so that I had a pretty good idea of what the subject might say. I always asked lots of open-ended questions, especially at the front end of an interview (‘Tell me a little about such and such’).  And lots of what you might call dumb questions (‘I’m confused about such and such or this is pretty complex so maybe you’d better explain that to me’). I always thought what came to the top of the subject’s mind on open-ended questions told you something about how he or she viewed an event or topic. Since I already knew lots about the subject, these open-ended and sometimes dumb questions also revealed if the interviewee was evasive or not telling the truth.”

 

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