Listen Here: Reflections on Learning to Interview

In the eight months since I started interviewing people for CultureMap and for my own blog, I have spent a lot of time listening to myself on tape.

The very first stage of my development as an interviewer was simply accepting that my voice sounded like that. It is simply too awful to describe. Ordinary language quails at the task: Desperate concierge? Groaning escalator? Pubescent wombat? If you interact with me on a daily basis, I can only assume that it takes all your energy to refrain from shuddering, and that after we are done talking you immediately run off and buy yourself a box of petit fours to reward yourself for the effort. I apologize to all of you.

However, that phase passes fairly quickly. If the interview goes well, and I deliver my guttural wombat noises briefly and infrequently, I can ignore myself and focus on transcribing the interviewee’s answers. Perversely, I love transcribing. It feels like a Gillian Michaels tape for your carpal tunnels. You turn your brain down to a one and your fine motor skills up to a ten, and try to get the words into your ear and out of your fingertips as quickly and with as little interference from the command center as possible. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are so much jettisoned cargo. As long as I’m able to identify the phrase “wll thta’s a rayly goo quqqstin” using context clues, it’s good enough for the transcript.

With my fingers flying and my brain on vacay, it’s a lot easier to rise above the fact that I sound like a moron. Easier, but still not always possible. Because there are some interviews that just don’t go well. These are obviously the interviews with Big Shots, the writers I respect and admire most. I usually write a ton of questions for these authors, and yet mysteriously wind up sounding like I have no idea who they are or what they have done to deserve to be interviewed. That is because once the interview begins, I am in a survival situation. It is as if the interviewee has hijacked my subway car and is holding a gun to my head, and I have to give Christian Bale enough time to get into his Batman outfit. My one goal is to keep the interviewee talking so that I won’t start talking. Because that, to paraphrase Egon Spengler, would be bad.

Here are some telltale signs of a bad interview:

  • I say the phrase “That’s really fascinating!” between five and seven times.
  • I say the phrase “Let me just look through my notes” at least once.
  • I ask about a favorite movie or book. (Follow-up question? “Oh, I’ll have to check that out.”)
  • I laugh at 20 second intervals. The interviewee does not laugh.
  • I laugh at 20 second intervals. The interviewee laughs nervously in response.
  • I laugh at 20 second intervals. The interviewee begins to sound frightened.
  • I interrupt myself in the middle of a question to say, “You know what? This is a stupid question.”
  • I ask if I am keeping the interviewee from something important and perhaps should let her go, and when the interviewee replies in the negative, I say, “Are you sure?”

Listening to these interviews is excruciating, but instructive. I feel that I have learned from them a few basic things about the art of interviewing.

First and foremost, the key to getting what you want from an interview is letting go of what you want and just waiting. My wonderful, kind editor tried to tell me this right off the bat, but since I am a narcissist with the patience of a toddler, it was hard for me to swallow. I am not good with waiting. If they did the marshmallow experiment on me, I would spend 30 seconds staring desperately at the door, then I would eat the marshmallow, and then after 30 more seconds I would start pounding the one-way mirror and yelling that my blood sugar was dangerously low and I better get some more marshmallows in here stat.

And interviewing is all about waiting. First you have to wait through the silence after you ask the question and before they answer. This can take up whole fractions of seconds. As a result, I have had to dedicate a whole portion of my brain solely to yelling silently at myself during those pauses: Don’t follow up yet! They don’t need further elaboration! They’re just thinking! Shutupshutupshutup!

But there’s a second kind of pause that’s even more important: the halftime pause, when the interviewee’s subconscious comes out on the field and does an elaborate dance number and everybody switches channels to the Puppy Bowl. (That metaphor is probably not worth examining too closely.) Really what happens is the interviewee talks for a minute or two, finishes what she has to say, and falls silent.

At this point, the brain police have me tied to the mast, and the silence is my siren song, calling me out to sea. I am mentally writhing in agony, my brain screaming, Odysseus-like, I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it! Please let me talk! I was born to fill silences! This is aaaaaawwwwkwaaaaarrrr. . . [trails off in a gasp of agony].

But the halftime pause is crucial. Everyone I’ve interviewed has been interviewed before, and they all have a basic idea of how they’ll respond to the same questions they’re always asked. They listen to the question, take a moment to register which answer is required, and go. But eventually they run out of script and they pause. And somewhere in that breath, having done their duty by the question, their brains are having a nice time free associating, and they are likely to have an actual new thought that seems worth mentioning. Or maybe they hate silence too. Either way, if and when they open their mouths again, the next thing that comes out will almost always be less rehearsed, less guarded, and more speculative. The first answer isn’t exactly a lie, but the second answer is almost always the truth.

By the same token, I have learned never to retract a stupid question, or apologize for asking it. It’s not that there are no stupid questions–I have asked a million of them. I usually know when I have asked one by the fact that I am silently clubbing myself on the head and mouthing the words “stupid stupid stupid” in the pause before the interviewee responds. The thing is, in golden instances, and not as rarely as you would think, the stupid question actually turns out to be the smartest question you could ask.

I’m not talking about a boring question–that’s different. I mean a truly out-there, stupid question like “Are you religious?” or “Why is there a pancake scene in all of your novels?” that just flies out of your mouth before you can stop it. The advantage to such a truly stupid question is that it is probably one that the interviewee has never heard before. Which means it may actually catch them off-guard, and they might go ahead and say out loud what they are thinking. They may even be prompted by pity to say more than they usually would.

“This poor wombat-girl sounds like she’s on the brink,” they might be thinking. “I’d better start talking before she decides to enter another graduate program.”

There’s always a slim chance that they will acknowledge the stupidity of the question by responding curtly, thereby setting into motion an hour of googling nearby masters programs in social work. But you know what? That’s just bad manners.

Early on, when I had just started doing this, I overheard one rather well-known writer make a crack about a journalist at a rival publication who had interviewed him earlier that day. It could not have been for my benefit, because although I was standing right there and he had been told I would be interviewing him, he had only the faintest idea who I was. The well-known writer made a few snarky comments about how “weird” the interview went–which, undoubtedly, it did, since the interviewer, I presume, was speaking to one of his literary heroes. He capped off his remarks with a huge eye-roll and the following statement: “Oh yeah, and he told me he’s a writer. I was like, great, good for you, dude.”

So this last lesson that I have learned from interviewing people turns out to be basically the same lesson I learned from waiting tables for years and year: It’s easy to tell when someone thinks of you as a human. And it’s just as easy to tell when they think of you as a talking appliance that produces comically human-like phrases from time to time.

It’s perfectly true that there’s only one crucial participant in the interview, and it isn’t me. But just because I could easily be replaced by another, better journalist doesn’t mean that I’m literally a fungible commodity, like silver or crude oil. Just because I try to be invisible for an hour doesn’t mean I have actually disappeared. And just because my job is to make you look good doesn’t mean that I’m actually a mirror. It turns out you can learn a lot about people when you really listen.

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6 thoughts on “Listen Here: Reflections on Learning to Interview

  1. Lyn says:

    Interesting learning trail you describe. Very much like life itself – when to speak, when to wait, when to realize the stupid question/action was really the smartest. And the smartest may have been the studidest…. Someone “in the business” of waiting in order to elicit response once told me to count to 20 in my head. Works even better if you count in Armenian! 🙂

    • amyegentry says:

      This is so good for teaching as well! It’s easy to interpret silence as “nothing’s happening” when oftentimes it means “everybody’s thinking.” Think that counting trick would work with 1-10 in Russian? I think I’d be going crazy by 20 and I definitely don’t have time to learn Armenian! 😉

  2. Kayla Lane says:

    Super interesting. Super informative.

  3. benjb says:

    I would think that improv training would help with being silent. I remember one particular exercise/short-form game where you gave your terrible one line joke (“1001 bananas walk into a bar and then decide to split”) and then stood, waiting out the silence for a good 5-10 seconds of hell.

    As for me, replace “social work” with “engineering” or “psychology,” though the fact that I think of those two as similar probably says more than I’d like it to.

    • amyegentry says:

      That must be why I’m so bad at improv! On the other hand, based on the first script-building workshop for the collaborative improv-developed cheerleading play I’m in, I’m terrific at improvised monologuing in character. No surprise there. Give me a person to be and I’ll be it for as long as you want, but listening and responding in the moment is a real challenge for me.

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