How to Get People to Talk a Lot and Tell You Plenty

By Jack Limpert

In the April 7 New Yorker, the writer John McPhee has a wonderful piece, titled “Elicitation,” about how to do good interviewing. The article’s longest and most entertaining sections are about the reporting he did for profiles of Jackie Gleason and Richard Burton.  For the New Yorker? No, he did both stories for Time back before he joined the New Yorker staff in 1965.

The part of the piece I found most interesting was his strategy for getting people to talk, and his preference for taking notes rather than using a tape recorder. 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, tried harder, and spills out the secrets of a secret life, or may 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 the 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 often encouraged young writers to focus more on listening and less on talking when doing interviews. I always 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.

“Years ago, at the Chronicle of Higher Education, I went to the Illinois state capital in Springfield and interviewed the lobbyist for the University of Illinois. He’d once lobbied for the Illinois Central and knew how to play rough-and-tumble politics. He was so tuned in for U of Illinois that he had an office in the capital building‚ well-stocked with booze.  It was summer and he wore a white suit. Man in his sixties. Great storyteller. After regaling me with his exploits, I told him he should write a book. He agree, but grinned and said, ‘Imagine I could make more money on it if I agreed not to publish it.’

“A couple of days later I go to U of Illinois to interview the long-time president (now emeritus) who had built the school into one of the nation’s great universities, mostly through dint of savvy political maneuvering.  He was a nationally known figure  and wanted to emphasize the university’s scholarly reputation. I started off soft with an open-ended question about his success in Springfield. He said that the U of Illinois never lobbied the legislature—he simply went down once a year to testify in support his budget and left it at that.

“I told him that wasn’t quite the picture I had from long talks with his lobbyist in Springfield.  Realizing I’d done my homework, he sort of smiled and we had an hour of really candid conversation about two decades of  higher education politics in Illinois.”

When Larry was doing his explanatory stories for the Washingtonian, I always sensed he put more work into research and reading than in interviewing people—that may be why McPhee’s most interesting anecdotes about interviewing came from the cover profiles of Jackie Gleason and Richard Burton he did for Time, not the explanatory pieces he does for the New Yorker.

Larry says, “I pretty much agree with everything that McPhee, one of my idols, says.  I always have been a terrible note taker but I had lots of notebooks filled with scribbling to make the subjects think I was interested in what they were saying.”

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