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9 quick-fire tips to draw the best stories out of anyone

Dec 11, 2013 // By Marcus Brotherton
Donn Jones picture

Photo: ‘Dylan-esque’ by DAJ.

Have you ever needed to interview someone?

Maybe for work.

Or a school project.

Maybe you’re writing an article, or a book of your own, or a killer post for your blog.

Maybe you just want to record a family member’s stories for posterity, which is a great project to do over the holiday season.

Why do I ask?

It’s because I regularly get e-mails from folks who tell me they need to interview someone, but they’re stumped as to how to proceed.

Often they’ve got a good idea of where they’re going, but they just need some encouragement as to how to make their interview the best it can be.

How do I know what I’m talking about?

A little background: I’ve been a professional writer now for 14 years, the first 5 of which were spent in a newsroom. It’s hard to estimate, but I’ve probably interviewed between 2,000 and 2,500 people.

I’ve interviewed an eclectic mix of people including governors and mine owners, spelling bee winners and superintendents, county commissioners, beauty contestant finalists, judges, mayors, salmon-rights activists, prison inmates, and one of the original, still-living members of Grand Funk Railroad.

Included in that number are a few famous folks, including actor Neil McDonough and author Francis Chan.

I’ve interviewed some highly difficult-to-classify folks, such as the Pilgrims, a 17-member backwoods bluegrass singing family who lived high in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska. Their strange, and eventually alarming story would be turned into a bestselling book that’s just now out, PILGRIM’S WILDERNESS by journalist Tom Kizzia.

I’ve done some hard interviews, including migrant workers who didn’t speak a word of English. Through an interpreter we discussed acceptable living conditions and a state shutdown of a farm where they worked.

I’ve been physically threatened a few times. Once, during the heat of a nasty strike, I ventured down to the picket lines to interview school bus drivers who’d walked off the line in favor of a better contract. That morning they were highly angry about an editorial my publisher had written earlier that sided against them and with the school district. A few of the drivers threatened to knock my head in if I didn’t leave immediately. I calmed them down and eventually got my story.

And then, of course, I’ve interviewed WWII veterans—which has been perhaps the most rewarding work of my writing career so far.

I’ve learned a lot of techniques over the years.

I know that interviewing can be real work sometimes.

But it can also be a lot of fun.

No matter who you need to interview, the following 9 tips will help.

 

1.     Be purposeful, forthright, and quiet.

Prepare for your interview as much as possible in advance. It’s helpful to have a list of questions in your notebook ahead of time, but sometimes that’s not possible. Either way, just go into your interview confident and humble.

To begin an interview, explain your purpose, turn on your recorder, get him or her talking, and go silent. Resist the urge to be a trial attorney and pepper him with questions. Your job is mainly to listen.

2.     Begin wherever he’s comfortable.

Depending on your theme, you may want to begin at the very beginning, like, “Tell me about your childhood— where you grew up and what you were like as a boy?”

If your interview is about a particular subject or based around a theme, begin with the most logical place to start, wherever that is.

If he’s a vet, you may want to begin with the war. “Let’s start with Pearl Harbor, the day everything changed for America. Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed?” Or start with enlisting. “Tell me about how you enlisted and what motivated you to do so?”

3.     Progress sequentially.

Once he’s warmed up and talking, have him walk sequentially through his experience, as much as he’s able.

4.     Use broad-based, straightforward, open-ended questions.

The ultra-simple question, “What happened after that?” is often best.

5.     Probe for stories gently.

You may get the sense that who you’re interviewing isn’t telling you the whole story, particularly if the subject matter is highly emotional or difficult to revisit. Allow your interviewee to stop or take a breather if you don’t think it’s wisest to continue.

If you feel he simply needs more encouragement to continue, the ultra-simple line, “Tell me more,” can be highly effective.

Note: this can also work when you pick up your child from school and you ask, “How was your day?”

6.     Schedule one-to-two hour chunks of time to work.

If your interview is going to be a long one, such as recording a grandparent’s life story, the inclination is often to set a whole day aside and just go for it. But that seldom works well as you get into the material.

It can be tough work to recall events, particularly if they’re highly emotional or difficult to revisit, and you will find your interviewee’s concentration waning before long.

I’ve interviewed people for 8-10 hours straight for 5 to 7 days in a row when a necessity. But it usually works better to schedule interviews in one-to-two hour blocks.

Think: short, intense. Rather than: long, drawn-out.

 7.     End with purpose again.

End with a question that gets to the heart of the matter and the purpose of your task. If you’re interviewing a vet or a grandparent, something like, “What sort of advice would you have for today’s generations?”

8.     Fish for a unique response.

If you’re interviewing a newsmaker or someone who gets interviewed a lot, this simple question can be highly effective in getting a compelling quote or story: “What’s one question nobody’s ever asked you before, and how would you answer?”

9.     Keep your recorder on.

Once the interview is over, keep your tape recorder running but don’t draw attention to it.

This is often when people relax the most and say highly interesting things.

 

Question: have you ever interviewed anyone—WWII vet or otherwise? What was it like? If you could interview anybody, who would it be and why?

 

  • KRussell

    All excellent advice, Marcus. When I worked as a securities enforcement attorney I interviewed numerous investors who had lost their life savings through securities fraud. Listening, being respectful and conveying that you’re not being judgmental were key to putting them at ease.This lead to more information. Preparedness and asking questions that tend to elicit detailed responses are also crucial. At least one of the investors that I recall was a WWII vet. He was devastated by his financial loss and just about as much by the deceit involved. I still remember him telling me that to him a man’s word is his bond. I wish I would have thought to thank him for his service.

    • Marcus

      “Listening, being respectful, and conveying that you’re not being judgmental…” great thoughts, thanks.

  • Hi Marcus! Thank you for the tips! As one of my “inspirations” in writing, it’s great to hear some of these tips coming from you. As you might know, I am working on a book about the actions of an American Infantry Division in a terrible battle. Over the years, I have been in touch with family members who have shared information about their dad, brother or grandfather, and shared some great stuff with me. I also have been, and still am, in touch with several veterans. Some of the veterans are really “modern” and they email me some amazing stories after I ask them a few things via email. I get a great reply, including emoticons I don’t even know how to put in an email! But, lately I have been doing some interviews with American veterans via Skype/video. I am always nervous before it starts. I do have some questions written down, but also know I can’t just ask them. I mostly find the beginning the hardest. After the “hello”, “how are you doing sir” and some other small talk, the transition to the topic of war is sometimes a bit difficult. It’s OK once we’re talking about it, but I always wonder about how to approach it. I usually say “So, you were a member of the 9th Infantry Division, and fought in the Hurtgen Forest?”. From here on it usually goes well. I mainly let the veteran talk, and I do manage to ask some follow up questions. But, as you mentioned, if the topic is emotionally charged, I find it hard to press through. But these are the stories that need to be told. Maybe with some of your tips I will be able to have a better flow in my interviews. Now it’s often jumping from one action to another, often forgetting to ask certain things. So, I hope I can get a better flow in my interviews. Maybe I can contact you sometime about this as well? About who I would like to interview…well, I wish I could ask my grandfather way more questions about World War 2. I have talked to him many times about it, but it was only after he passed away that I learned so much more about the topic, and had so many new questions to ask. It would have been great to sit down with him, and really record his stories. Great blog entry Marcus. It inspires me to work harder on my “interviewing skills”. Thank you.

    • Marcus

      Yuri, thanks for your great comments. I’d love to chat sometime, but I’m not a Skyper. Feel free to email, or we could do a call too.

      • Thank you Marcus. I am also not really a Skyper, but living in Europe, it’s the best way to be as personal with a veteran as possible. I might email you sometime when it’s not a busy period. Enjoy the Christmas Holidays!

  • Gary Sedgwick

    Marcus: I do not recall having a true in depth interview with any person, but have had talks with individuals regarding various topics. I would have enjoyed being a mouse listening to some of your experiences during interviews and Janice Stevens who wrote “Stories of Service” based on military stories from San Joaquin Valley Veterans. I wish that I could have interviewed Harry Truman, Joe Rochefort, Bob Phillips, my neighbor who passes a few months ago but would not talk about his WW II experiences. He served on the Quincy. I could name many more. Currently, I would like to interview Don Marlarkey because he has been written about in most of the Band of Brothers books and seems to be a very interesting individual. I tried to contact his daughter for a interview, but it fell through. I am trying to contact Sterlilng Cale of Hawaii who was in the Navy at Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941 and I have met him four years ago when visiting the Arizona with my wife and grandson. He lived in my hometown of Galesburg, Il briefly before moving to Moline and joining the Navy. He signs autographs for tourists at the Arizona and participates in talks to students at schools in Hawaii. He remained in the service after WW II and served in Korea and possibly Vietnam.
    Gary

    • Marcus

      Gary, good ideas, thank you. –MB

  • Jeff

    Great thoughts. I could certainly be a better listener. I can use these tips to be a better communicator at home and work. Thanks for the advice.

    • Marcus

      Thanks for your comment, Jeff.

  • Kevin W. Bridges

    Good tips! I would also say that some books on basic counseling skills are helpful too. In those, you learn things like how your posture affects the person speaking to you. For instance, did you know that studies show that most people feel like their being listened to the best when the listener is facing them, seated, and leaning in about 30 degrees? You can learn skills in positioning, observing, listening, responding, paraphrasing, summarizing, probing, etc. One of my favorite books is “The Lost Art of Listening” by Michael P. Nichols. Thanks again for your helpful tips!

    • Marcus

      Yes definitely a good idea. Thanks for the tip. –MB

  • Gary Sedgwick

    PS: I would like to interview Marcus and Yuri. After several days of thinking about your question, I thought of you and Yuri. Your picture between Babe and Bill + the interviews with many veterans would be awesome to me. Yuri is working on a book of the 9th infantry and his background from Europe. I always enjoy what he writes.

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HI, I'M MARCUS BROTHERTON,

the bestselling author or coauthor of more than 25 books. Welcome to my blog. Thoreau pointed out how too many people lead lives of quiet desperation. Their lives are bland and meaningless, or they make choices that trap them in despair and darkness. By contrast, I want to help people lead lives of excellence. Meet here regularly for powerful stories and insight into how to live and lead well.