Interviewing Tricky People


Ask any writer how they research a topic and interviews will surely come top of the list. A primary source of information, they are a valuable journalistic tool which can add depth, interest and colour to any piece of writing.

But good interviews don’t happen by magic. It takes a lot of preparation to ensure a fact-to-face interview will go well. After the initial research and organisation, you need to ensure your tailor-made questions are not only interesting & relevant,  but also bring something new to the table. Knowing what your readers want will always help you to focus on what’s really important.

Ready, Steady… oh hang on…

Then, just when you think you’ve got it licked, your interviewee turns out to be a bit of a stick in the mud. Instead of giving answers full of witty observations and anecdotes, they freeze up. If you’re really unlucky they can be confrontational, treating your interview like a cold war interrogation. I’ve touched on the subject of interview trouble before on the Copybreak Blog but its worth revisiting this prickly topic. For if you ever find yourself in the midst of Conversation No Man’s Land – knowing an escape route comes in pretty handy.

When In Doubt, Play Safe

If your interviewee is a little on the wary side, revert to questions you know are in their comfort zone. This may not tell you anything new but it might give them a chance to loosen up a little. Being asked lots of questions can be stressful – especially if you’re not used to it. Here is where all that pre-interview research really comes into its own. Don’t be afraid to jot down potential questions beforehand. It may look like professional interviewers do it all from memory but only fools conduct interviews without reference to any of their questions.

Look & Listen

Interviews are not just a one way street. Your interviewee will gives clues as to how they are feeling through physical clues as well as in their answers. Treat them with respect and learn to interpret their response. There’s nothing worse than an interviewer just asking a long list of questions and not actually listening to what’s been said. It’s the fast track way to annoy your interviewee and lose their trust. Listening could also lead to more questions and more relevant answers. It really is all in the detail.

Now be Nice

Provoking your interviewee can lead to all manner of interesting situations (Parkinson’s Meg Ryan Interview and Clive Anderson & the Beegees springs to mind) and in some cases it can actually work. Jeremy Paxman is famous for his abrasive interviewing style but it carries risks. A friendly approach can pay dividends even when it’s obvious you don’t agree with your interviewee. Louis Theroux is famous for getting notoriously prickly people to admit things even when he disagrees entirely with their viewpoint. Be courteous and patient – asking nicely can open a lot of doors.

Armed with these handy hints you’ll know exactly what to do if your interview hits the buffers.

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