The Art of the Interview

October 13, 2016 § 5 Comments

Diahann Carroll during a 1953 radio interview with Leigh Kamman at the Palm Cafe in Harlem

Diahann Carroll during a 1953 radio interview with Leigh Kamman at the Palm Cafe in Harlem

The first episode of Brevity’s podcast came out this week, and it’s amazing how many people it took to put together what sounds like simply a recorded conversation. As well as the author and the host, there’s also a tape-logger, who transcribes significant quotes and summarizes the conversation in between as a guide for editing; and an audio editor who removes “um’s” and makes everyone sound smarter, as well as shaping the interview and making judgment calls on what tape to keep and what to let go.

That’s the hardest part–the judgment calls. Forty-five minutes with Thaddeus Gunn became 12, and 90 minutes with Dani Shapiro condensed to 45. Thoughtful, well-spoken guests are a blessing and a curse.

If you’re working in narrative non-fiction or journalism, or putting together an essay that includes someone’s personal story or a conversation, it can be hard to narrow down what you want to keep. And if you’re the writer talking about your book or your process, it’s hard to stay on track. But there are some easy ways to get what you need, as interviewer or interviewee.

If you’re the person of interest:

  • Use complete sentences. It’s much easier to edit tape, or quote you in an article, if you respond with a discrete unit.

Q: How did you get started writing?

A: My mom gave me a pencil when I was five.


A: I started writing when I was five, after Mom gave me a pencil for Christmas.

The second answer can open an article; the first one needs context, and context burns up word count.

  • Have an idea of what you want to get out there, and practice in advance. That doesn’t mean “rehearse” or have a set speech, which can sound phony even coming from professional actors. But know what you care about, and while you’re in your car, or taking a walk, ask yourself imaginary questions and frame a few different ways to answer them. I was on TV often in my former profession of circus performer, and every single interviewer asked how I got started fire-eating. It was useful to have two or three clever, short, easy-to-edit answers.
  • Limit your subjects. Be in-depth and meaningful about a few things rather than glib with many. Unless you’re live, they’ll edit you down later.
  • Know that the interview is for you, too. It’s OK to say before you start, “I’m hoping to mention X at some point,” or “My last two interviews covered Y and I’d love to do something fresh with you–can we go in another direction?” The host/journalist wants you to be happy, because happy subjects give better interviews.

Even beginning interviewers can get good tape and good quotes:

  • Allow enough time. You need/hope for at least 30% more talking time than will be in the finished piece. Your likelihood of getting that time is inversely proportional to the fame of the person you’re talking to.
  • Small talk has value. It’s important to hear where your interviewee is mentally today, and listening to preliminary chat lets them know they’re being heard. They’re more likely to share things that matter if you’ve demonstrated that you value what they say.
  • Shut up. It’s an old trick, but asking a question, then waiting, allows the person to frame their thoughts. Leave space at the end of their answer, and they’ll often come up with something else important. It takes everyone time to ruminate. This is good for teaching, too–leave a longer gap than feels comfortable after asking a question. Be comfortable with silence. (Practice your ‘supportive attentiveness’ face and keep it on–even in a phone call, they can feel it.)
  • Ask the subject what they need. Before you start, “Is there anything you’re really hoping we’ll cover?” At the end, “Anything else you’d like to add?” Often, the best quotes and most compelling stories come when the interview is “over.”
  • Be fascinated. People can tell when you’re genuinely interested. And you’ll be less nervous if you’re thinking about them. Practice this by asking strangers (in safe locations) about their lives, and trying to make them feel heard. Practice your listening face and your interview technique at parties and meals. Be the person everyone want to talk to.
  • When editing an interview-based piece together, it’s better to focus on a smaller number of significant moments than to give an overview of the whole conversation. Chopping out a whole subject, or an entire set of questions, is much easier than trying to trim every section of the talk and get it all in. Leave everyone wanting more.

It helped me tremendously to rely on another person’s taste about what elements of the interview most suited the podcast. And it was way less painful to have our crack audio editor Kathryn Rose do the trimming. By the time I listened to the first draft, she’d already made some global decisions, and there were only one or two places where I said, “I miss that, can we put it back in?” If you’ve got a writer buddy to help out, share your transcript and ask them what fascinates them.

Many of us enjoy the solo element of writing. But practice your interviewing, and your own interview content. There’s an essay out there if you listen for it.


Allison Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast.

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§ 5 Responses to The Art of the Interview

  • Irene Hoge Smith says:

    This is fascinating, and so smart. Love the behind-the-scenes take on what goes into something that ended up sounding so effortless. Great preparation for anyone lucky enough to interviewed on this new podcast.

  • I very much enjoyed the first podcast, and am looking forward to more! (I also appreciate this little guide.)

  • This is a very insightful piece, thanks for writing this one and laying it out so well

  • Barb Knowles says:

    I know little about podcasts, because I would always rather read than listen. Not only did this article change my mind, it was fascinating to read about the behind-the-scenes work, as well as what makes a podcast interesting. In general, I HATE editing, but having another person read and tell you what fascinates them is such a good idea.
    “There’s an essay out there if you listen for it.” I loved that.

  • Teri says:

    Thank you for this new podcast! I rely on good podcasts like this to educate myself as a writer. This is my new favorite!

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