Asking questions or getting answers?

A couple of months ago I wrote about my experiences interviewing people. Since then, I’ve had some more thoughts on the subject that I thought I would share.

I recently read an interview where an ardent fan asked questions of a well-known director. The interviewer had several hypotheses about the director’s work that he wanted the interviewee to confirm. His questions were long and involved as he laid out his theories in intricate detail. The director’s responses were mostly only a sentence or two. Often just a couple of words, generally refuting the hypotheses or claiming that he didn’t remember what he was thinking when he set up a particular shot. As a result, the interview ended up being 85% about the interviewer and 15% about the director. In another article, it seemed like this same interviewer was trying to prod a different subject into criticizing a third party, making him party to the interview’s admitted disdain for the other person. The subject didn’t take the bait, but that didn’t stop the interviewer from trying again.

I don’t know about you, but when I read an interview, I’m more interested in hearing what the subject has to say than I am in parsing convoluted questions. It made me think about my approach to interviews. There are times when I want to elicit certain kinds of information from the subject, but I don’t want to try to coerce the subject into saying something.

While I was writing up the interviews I conducted for the manuscript I submitted recently, I found myself editing down my questions until they were no more than a sentence when possible. The actual questions were longer because I wanted the interview subject to understand where I was coming from. However, having garnered a response, that setup was no longer important. The questions functioned as signposts in the text to indicate a change in topic.

The extreme example of this is the Locus magazine style of interviewing, in which no questions are presented at all. The interview is published as a first person monologue. It completely abstracts the interviewer from the process. I’m not sure how they go about doing this because it means that the interview subject has to answer in fully formed sentences that, in a way, contain or summarize the question. One issue I encountered in conducting my interviews is that the subject would often answer in sentence fragments, switching gears, backing up, changing thoughts in mid-stream. The answers by themselves would often have been unintelligible.

I think I found a middle ground between these two approaches. The interviewer is present, but only as a guide, stating the question in the barest possible manner, without a lot of folderol. I wanted to get out of the way and let the interview subject take center stage. If someone wants to know what I think about something, then they can interview me.

4 comments to Asking questions or getting answers?

  • Robert Jones

    Thank you for your thoughtful and observant piece.
    I share your distaste for interviewers who skew the ratio of interviewer talk compared to interviewee talk in favor of the former. Another irritation is created by interviewers who verbally anticipate what the interviewee is going to say about a subject, seemingly just to prove that h/she also knows something about it.
    A very popular Canadian interviewer who had an exceptionally high-rated interviewing style was asked by her daughter, who was about to embark on her own interviewing career, for advise on how she went about interviewing. The daughter then sat back with a pad and pencil to take notes. Her mother began by saying that she asked questions as simply and clearly as possible. Her daughter noted that and, pencil ready, asked what she did next. Her mother said, “I listen.”

  • Bev Vincent

    My favorite interview subjects are the ones where I can ask a question and they will talk for several minutes — and it’s all good material. I can just sit back and let them go.

  • So many pearls of wisdom here. A fascinating and informative piece! Thanks for sharing.

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