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15. Interview techniques

It’s not easy to get a proper interview out of somebody who’s reluctant to talk, who babbles or talks in veiled terms for fear of saying too much. Questioning to get clear information asks for knowledge but most of all savoir-faire, talent and sometimes trickiness. There is an art of the interview. 

Ten secrets

1/ Create an atmosphere of trust

Every interview is a competition. The interviewer always starts in a weak position because he’s the one asking for something. For the game to be friendly, thread carefully when approaching the interviewee. Writing them will make them feel safer than a phone call would. You HAVE to convince your interlocutor his testimony his precious to you and that nothing will be published without his assent. When I’m writing Caesar to get a reaction to what I’ve discovered about his funds, I’m trying to cajole him. I highlight the fact that I’m giving him a platform to answer the people slandering his methods in Rome.

2/ Take no chances

You don’t interview the same way an official, a CEO or a writer. But whoever your interlocutor is, an interview is only useful if you’ve prepared it. I ask Caesar for an interview when I feel ready to hold my ground. That is to say when I’ve researched as much data on him, his foes and his friends as I could, and when I’ve written a good interview guide: a list of questions detailed and precise enough to counter his distraction techniques and force him to the wall.

3/ Choose the right strategy

There are three types of interview. They all give different results.

  • The directive interview: you ask very precise question and refuse any digression or evasive answer. It’s an aggressive method, which works for short formats such as vox pops: three questions, three five-line answers. Don’t subject Caesar to a vox pop… 
  • The non-directive interview: you ask one very open introductory question then let the interlocutor soliloquize at will. It’s a lazy method, very useful to uncover your interlocutor’s personality when you know nothing about him, but pretty useless if you’re looking for information. If I let Caesar talk to himself for hours he won’t tell me anything about his funds. Obviously. 
  • The semi directive interview: it’s the most appropriate for journalists. You alternate between open and closed questions, between the vague and the detailed. This helps the conversation and creates an atmosphere of sharing, or even cooperation. I will use this strategy with Caesar. I’ll start with vague questions: “How do you fund your campaigns?” I’ll let him talk for a while, silently. My listening to him and smiling will put him at ease. Then I’ll interrupt him calmly with precise questions backed up by references: “Last week, I was in Rome. I had lunch at Lucullus’s with some banker friends… and I hear that since you landed in Gaul, your wealth as increased by tenfold… Is that true?”

4/ Choose the right place

You don’t interview people just anywhere. Don’t meet up with Caesar in the local pub. You’re the one who’s asking, meet him in his HQ. Avoid public places, such as restaurants or cafés. There’s too much noise and too many witnesses. Choose a quiet, calm place, like an office, or a living room. Public places are ok when you’re chatting with secondary witnesses or some informers whose identity can’t be revealed.

5/ Choose the right tone

An interview is a game, but it’s not a boxing match. It’s an ambiguous tête-à-tête, during which each one is trying to seduce the other. Aggressiveness is counter-productive. You won’t get confidences this way. The interviewee is not your enemy. It’s not about provoking him, fighting him or destroying him. It’s about creating, for the short time of a conversation, a relationship based on mutual respect. The right tone is one of neutrality and tolerance. I don’t share Caesar’s ideas but I recognize his right to express them freely and if I disagree, I do so courteously.

6/ Know how to ask your questions

You won’t put your interlocutor at eased with biased, two-faced or unrelated questions. The right way to interview consists in asking clear, precise questions, of which you’ve weighted each word, that link up effortlessly around the central topic. Their content, thanks to its rigor and consistency, shows your interlocutor you know your topic. This is why the interview guide is so important. It’ll allow you to stay in control, even if the interviewee has a tendency to skirt around. If I ask Caesar about the worth of his Gallic plunder, I need to have solid comparison points, for example, verified figures about the wealth amassed in spain by Pompey, else he will answer derisively.

7/ Ask the right questions

A good question is clear, precise, clever, neutral, asked so as not to induce the answer, but heavy enough that the answer drives the interviewer closer to his goal. It might be a secondary question. To ask the right one at the right time, you must know your subject. The interviewer gets to it by asking the easiest questions first, then the heavier ones. I have a good secondary question to ask Caesar as soon as he confirms his wealth as increased ten-fold since he landed in Gaul. “Any proconsul lucky enough to be so wealthy could dream of becoming imperator… Is that something you think about?

8/ Avoid self-censorship

Good questions sometimes induce avoidance or straight up refusal to answer. Don’t give up. You’re a “truth bringer”, and as such it’s your duty to ask again, politely, quietly, but firmly, and at least once. I you don’t get any better result, the interviewee’s refusal to answer becomes eloquent, and you can tell your reader about it. I’m expecting Caesar not to answer my secondary question. If he said that he wanted to be crowned imperator, the Senate would dismiss him immediately. But if he refuses to answer… I’ll write about it.

9/ Transcribing without denaturing

Recording an interview frees you from taking notes during the whole interview and gives the interviewee a guarantee his words won’t be distorted. But you only use a recorder if he agrees to it, and you have to agree to stop recording if he asks you to. You’ll stop the recording yourself if any kind of interference occurs, such as a phone ringing. Recording does not spare you from taking notes, especially to write down some details: smiles, faces, and hesitations… Discuss whether you’ll rewrite some informal figures of speech at the end of the interview.

10/ End the meeting with no ambiguity

Even though the rules of the match were established beforehand, the interviewer will tell the interviewee how he’ll use his words, so as to avoid any quid pro quo: full Q&A, some quotes, right to review the article or not… The interviewer decides, in agreement with the interviewee. My own deal with Caesar will, as usual, be clear: he always allows me to tape the interview and publish at will… but he doesn’t exclude denying it. His words against mine, that seems fair enough.