Monday, September 27, 2010

How to interview people

1. Sit Somewhere Important. Where you sit matters. If you're interviewing someone who you really need to get stuff out of, sit close. Maybe stick your foot within three feet of them. Maybe let your mouth hang open a little while you stare into their eyes. But if you have time and they're weird in some way, you might want to sit further away. Like, if you want them to forget that you're there, even though you're right there. The latter technique works well for narcissists. The former technique works well for people you are trying to disarm. I guess if the person is in prison, your choices are more limited.

2. Record Two Times. I don't do this enough, but you really need to record the person on two devices, because if you only use one, and that gets fucked up, you will be fucked. You might feel stupid walking around and putting in front of someone two devices, but who cares? Your ass is covered. Get one of those little digital ones because people forget they're there, because they are small and also quiet and don't really look like much other than a pack of silver cigarettes or something.

3. Do All the Work Ahead of Time. Mostly you should know everything about your subject -- the person and the topic -- before you walk in the room. That's what the internet is for: finding stuff out. If you make a mistake in an interview and let someone know that you don't know something, you will feel stupid. This happens no matter what, but try and limit the amount of times it happens. People who think you're a moron will tell you less. This isn't the goal. You want them to tell you more.

4. Shut the Fuck Up. As I have stated previously here, this was taught to me by Mark Ebner who gets people blabbing shit at him all the time, so he should know. Recently, I was in a room watching a round table of journalists interview a famous person. It was amazing how it was the stupid middle-aged journalists who when asking their questions acted like the same assholes who go to book readings and "ask questions" just to hear themselves talk. Jesus. No one wants to interview you. If they did, you wouldn't be interviewing someone else. Ask short questions that make a semblance of sense and then shut your world hole, and let the other person talk.

5. No Scripts Allowed. At that same round table, there were two or three young female journalists. Maybe they were in college or something. They were comely. They were shy and not aggressive, which I guess was understandable, but they read their questions off the sheet of paper they brought with them. This made me want to crawl under the table with sympathetic embarrassment. If you have to read the question, you don't know your subject well enough. Do your research, write your questions beforehand if you feel like it, but in the room you can only use those questions as a cheat sheet and if you must, or you look like an idiot auditioning for a role or something.

6. Be a Mirror. This is more stuff in the behavioral department. You don't want to be all calculated with it -- ideally, you should do this stuff intuitively, after a while if not immediately -- but you should modify how you sit, and what you do, and the way you speak according to the person. Mostly, with chicks, I mean, it depends on the chick, but mostly with chicks I am more prone to nodding, saying stuff that sounds like I'm agreeing, and smiling. Probably, this is emotional babysitting, but whatever. With dudes, it kind of depends. The last time I found myself twirling my hair, which may have looked dumb, but apparently that's what my subconscious thought was warranted. Don't listen to your thinking brain. Listen to the reptile part. That part knows more than you.

7. Be Smart. Don't ask stupid questions that the person has been asked a million times, or shit that shows you don't know what you're talking about, or questions that reveal you're too much of a pansy to ask the hard stuff. I think from straight out the gate, I kind of try and "top" people. That's like passive aggressively clarifying you hold the reins in some vague, inscrutable way. In an interview, you want the other person to do what you want, not what they want, so it's a lot like if you go to babysit, and the parents walk out the door, and the kids go nuts: you have to lay down the law from the start or there will be trouble later on.

8. Don't Be Shy About Being Weird. If you're listening -- and it's amazing how many people don't -- you'll probably get to a point about 2/3rds of the way through the interview when you'll either get bored or realize you're not getting what you want. You can do random weird stuff at this point, and that will usually quietly freak out your interviewee and make them more prone to distractedly saying uncalculated shit. Like steal a pen. Or pick up the audio recording device, look at it, and then sigh. Or stare down at your notepad and bang your pen on it a bunch of times. People who agree to interviews a lot of times either want to please you or they want you to leave, and at a certain point they will give you shit they don't mean to if you make it seem like either you are not pleasing them or you will never leave.

9. Entrapment. Mostly, I prefer to interview people sitting in a chair trapped in a room. I think that ends distractions and makes them feel more trapped. Trapped people are more prone to confessing. And that's what this is. A confession.

10. Never Let Them See You Think. Generally, I think I'm too reactive in interviews, but that's probably my imagination. I don't know. If you're too, like, "YES!" then they try and pander to you. If you're too, like, remote, I think they feel sad and lonely and there's no connection. Not long ago, I interviewed a bunch of people who had disabilities. The narcoleptic's energy was totally different from the schizoid affect's energy was totally different from the psychotic episode's energy. I'm still tired.

11. The Right Questions. I was going to stop at 10, but I guess I should say something about questions. Honestly, I feel like if you don't know what kind of questions to ask, you should be in another profession. Don't ask stupid shit.

12. Hear the Story. I still need to get better at this, but basically you're doing three things in an interview. You're you, a human being, in a room or whatever, talking to a person. That's YOU. The real you. The you that's sometimes thinking, god, does this suck? Am I getting what I need? Why am I sweating? Then there's you the reporter or whatever stupid name you have attached to yourself. That person is engaged in the call and response of questions and answers. You do your thing, and they do their thing. This is the thinking mind, connecting with its subject, wondering if it wants to get engaged to its subject and maybe marry it or just get it drunk and take it home and bang it. Then there's your inner-editor. That's the monkey bicycling really fast inside your brain that's thinking globally. That's listening for those perfect quotes. That's hearing the story's narrative manifest in the air above the words. That's falling in love with its subject a little bit more every time the clock clicks forward. If you can do those three things at the same time, you're either really good or getting old or something else.