Tell me about your childhood....
April 25, 2009 5:13 AM   Subscribe

How do I extract information from people? I'm a self-taught journalist who profiles people in my community. Interviews always go well when we discuss the interviewee's special area of knowledge, but I stall when trying to move beyond that.

For example, if my subject is an artist, I'm good at talking about art with them. But I'd like to know more about their personal life to round out the article (my model is the New Yorker). What aspects of a person's life should I be interested in? What should I want to know about them, beyond what everyone else already knows? How do I move the conversation away from the agreed upon topic? How do I make them feel comfortable while doing this?
posted by Jason and Laszlo to Human Relations (13 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
It would probably be difficult to do this as an interviewer, but self-disclosure is key to getting other people to open up. Another thing is you want to be or at least appear to be nonjudgmental as hell. You also can't be too obvious about your intention, move from shallow to deep questions, don't start off asking too personal questions.

I learned those principles when I went to school for counseling, I'm sure you can transfer those priciples to different fields.
posted by sixcolors at 6:41 AM on April 25, 2009

You really need to begin at the point you want to end with. Look at Talk of the Town, the articles are short and sweet and within a sentence of the article opening, you have a very clear idea why the reporter thought the subject was worth the interview.
posted by parmanparman at 6:43 AM on April 25, 2009

Ignore Sixcolors' comment. Self-disclosure certainly works in therapy because the comments are meant to remain anonymous.
posted by parmanparman at 6:45 AM on April 25, 2009

What aspects of a person's life should I be interested in?

Oh yeah...I think you are on the right track, it's totally cliche, but I do think discussing aperson's childhood is a good starting point.

Finding out who they look up to (parents excluded, most people look up to them just because), looked up to in the past, and why is another aspect of a person's life you should be interested in.
posted by sixcolors at 6:49 AM on April 25, 2009

Terry Gross is an excellent interviewer. I'm trying to find interviews with her on Google, but I'm having a tough time. Here's one.
posted by bigmusic at 7:02 AM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm reminded of an article I read, years ago, about a portrait photographer who always tried to take her subjects out of their accustomed environment. For example, if the subject spent all his time in the city, she'd take him out into the country for the shoot. I guess this helped foil their habitual defenses and got them to open up.
posted by jon1270 at 7:03 AM on April 25, 2009

1.) You, personally, need to be fascinated by your subject (or at least appear to be.) Convey your fascination with excellent listening skills and heartfelt complements.

2.) Use their work to pry open the personal door. "This is such a complex painting; I'm not sure how I feel about it. What were you thinking about when you painted it?"

3.) Move from their work to their working space and from there to their support system. "The lack of windows in this room-- is that why you choose to work here?" "Do your children have any interest in following in your footsteps?"

4.) Don't sit there planning your next question in your head, but listen to your subject and let your questions evolve naturally-- rising out of your great interest in this person.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:06 AM on April 25, 2009

If you haven't already, study Studs Terkel.
posted by fydfyd at 7:07 AM on April 25, 2009

If you're at all interested, the Center for Counterintelligence and Security Studies offers a fantastic course taught by a former counterintelligence officer:

Interviewing Techniques: Basic to Advanced
How to professionally obtain information during interviews

"In this interactive workshop, participants learn strategies to successfully interview both cooperative and uncooperative individuals to gain maximum information."

Here are a couple of books by journalists I really enjoyed:

How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything by Barbara Walters
Interviewing: A Guide for Journalists and Writers by Gail Sedorkin and Judy McGrego
posted by aquafortis at 7:47 AM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Last year I interviewed dozens of people, from friends to film stars. Are you recording the conversations? If so, then you don't have to worry so much about off-roading, unless you or your subject is on a very a tight schedule. While you're talking, forget about hunting for the details you're after, just relax and start getting to know them; trust that later on when you go back and transcribe, everything you need will be there. It usually is.

While it's important to be gracious, also be honest and direct. If you don't understand something or want to challenge something they say, don't just let it go. This is hard to overcome because we're so conditioned to want people to like us, and most people avoid doing this in conversations with strangers. But trust me, what will ultimately make them like you is reading your really good, thorough interview.

Keep in mind that most people haven't been interviewed before, or at least very often. Some people are naturally brilliant at being interviewed and will do your job for you. For some, you will have to work 90 times harder to get merely adequate material. This is why it's important to be very prepared with lots of questions and ideas, but also be prepared to throw all that out the window -- if they turn out to be a brilliant interviewee, your prepared ideas won't really be necessary, and leaning on that crutch will only hamper you.

It's very hard to ask someone personal questions without revealing details about yourself. If they ask you questions, it's fine to answer (even if they're just being polite), but beware the instinct to fill the void with your own voice. Be prepared to reel yourself back in or cut yourself off if you catch yourself burbling.

You might enjoy this episode of RuPaul's Drag Race where the contestants are challenged to conduct television-style interviews. They're all really inexperienced, and it's interesting to see what mistakes they make -- and how some of them instinctively do really well.

Also, the magical question at the end of the interview: "Do you mind if I contact you later if I think of anything else?" Unless they're pretty famous, they probably won't mind.
posted by hermitosis at 8:36 AM on April 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

self-disclosure is key to getting other people to open up.

A crack journalist that I knew, the one who always got the details that no one else could, was the opposite of self-disclosing. She would become a new person for each interview, one that was very similar to her subject. She would make sympathetic vocalizations, meant to sooth whatever problems her subject had encountered. Listening to just her end of a phone interview, she might sound overly solicitous, but she always got the story.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:47 AM on April 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

I came here to recommend Terri Gross, too. I always find her interviews fascinating, even if I didn't think I cared about the topic. I think there are a few keys to her success:

- She is invariably fascinated by her subjects (or at least appears to be), that light of fascination helps them open up to her.
- She really does her research. She'll know all of her subject's work, plus have read a bunch of other interviews with them.
- She's not afraid to ask "dumb" questions. I think this is huge for any kind of research. She often seems to get some of her most interesting responses from seemingly obvious questions.

Also, one thing that I've noticed journalist friends doing in conversation: make sure any question you ask is somewhat related to something they've already said. Then, pick out the thing in their response that is most surprising. This takes practice, since as human beings we are programmed to selectively focus on information that confirms our worldview. But if you instead aggressively force yourself to focus on the surprising things, you will get more interesting conversations.
posted by lunasol at 5:19 PM on April 25, 2009

Good point about the research. You could even do it in the context of the interview, as part of warming up. "Where do you live, where did you grow up, where do you work, married, kids, parents, etc?" Now you've got the basics down, you can start talking about the meat of the subject.

In the context of a more news-y, get the scoop, kind of interview, the best advice is still to do your research. Basically, know what the subject is going to say, and come up with ways to get them to explain themselves ahead of time. "Senator Huffinpuff, when you say 'damned commies', who are you taking about?" You aren't trying to work them into a corner or to make them look stupid- but you are trying to get them to articulate themselves fully. If they are genuine, you and they have nothing to lose. If they are hiding something or engaging in propagandizing, either they will slip up and reveal their true selves, or reveal their lack of understanding of what they are saying.

(Ignore the self-disclosure thing- it's not about *you*, it's about the person you are talking to.)
posted by gjc at 5:43 PM on April 25, 2009

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