For me, the heart of research has always been the ability to elicit information from others. For years, it never occurred to me to go to the library or rummage through magazines or official documents. If I wanted to know about something, I found experts on that subject and tried to crawl inside their minds, to cram everything they would tell me in whatever time they would give me, and to understand things about which I knew absolutely nothing. Sometimes, I knew so little I couldn’t even frame a decent question.
In those cases, the first interview was always critical because it was the one that provided me with the big picture, key contacts, and politically correct language. This person had to be someone who wouldn’t mind that I knew nothing, someone who would be willing to explain the subject from the ground up. I was always amazed at the number of people who met those criteria. After the first interview, I went from one expert to another, asking each of them to refer me to the next, until all of these fragments began to make sense. The whole process was like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle without a picture of what it would look like when it was completed. Every assignment was a mystery to be solved, often with very few clues.
I would ask myself: What is the point of this story? What do I need to know to make that point? Who should I talk to, and how can I get to that person? What are the right questions to ask? How will I know when I have enough information? Answering those questions was always an adventure in starting with nothing and watching bits and pieces grow and take shape until they became an article.
Little by little, I was learning the art of interviewing; and, over the years, the ability to do it well has proved to be one of my most valuable strengths. The more I sought and gathered information in this way, the greater my respect for the interviewing process became.
- First, I believe interviewing requires the courage to take risks. It is risky to be in the presence of an expert when you can barely pronounce the name of his or her subject, let alone discuss it intelligently. It is risky to admit how little you know and still get this person to talk to you, to teach you everything you need to know, and often to do it in the simplest language possible. It is risky to believe you can then write about such a topic credibly, accurately, and understandably, so that people who know less than you do will understand it and find it interesting.
- Second, it takes the ability to get your ego out of the way so that you become virtually invisible, and the spotlight is on your expert, not on you. By that I mean that if you are conscious of yourself, of the questions you are asking, of how you are coming across, of whether the other person thinks you are smart or clever, or of needing to prove how much you know, you have missed the point completely. An interview isn’t about you; it’s about the other person. It’s about what that person knows or has experienced or can share with you that will add to your understanding of your topic.
- Third, you have to be able to take in and process information on the spot. You do not have the luxury of pouring over your notes or listening to your tape at a later time and framing the questions you would ask after you have had a chance to review them. You must assume that this is your only chance to ask, and that each question or comment will expand your grasp of the subject matter. That presupposes that, when the other person is talking, you are listening—fully engaged in the content, the nuances, the direction in which he or she is going. You have to be able to capture the message, read between the lines for nonverbal cues, check the accuracy of your understanding, integrate the new information into what you already know, and be prepared to build on that with your next question.
- Finally, it takes the rare trait of empathy—the ability to feel what the other person is feeling; to capture her enthusiasm for the subject; to view it as she does; and, beyond that, to transmit those feelings through the words you write to the printed page, so that they are still alive when the reader finally sees them. Empathy is more art than skill, but even art improves with practice.
As a writer, you will encounter many subjects in which you have little interest and more than a few that will bore you to tears. How do you bring such subjects to life? The answer is that you find a resource who is very interested in it, who knows a great deal or cares a great deal about it, and who is eager to share what he knows with you.
You purposely set out to capture the other person’s excitement, to understand what makes this topic so fascinating. The more questions you ask, the more you learn and, consequently, the better your grasp of the inherent richness of this topic becomes. Enthusiasm is contagious; and, if you are open and receptive, you can catch it.
The test of your interviewing skills is in the finished product. Does it do what it is intended to do: inform, educate, clarify, persuade, amuse, or create a particular impression or feeling? Is it accurate in fact, as well as in tone? Is it honest? Is it alive? If you do submit it to the interviewee for approval, is it likely to pass muster? This is the tough test to which you must submit every interview.