The interview - Shawn Loughlin editorial
It’s taken me a long time to get to where I am in regards to my interviewing “skills” and I put that in quotations just to make it clear that I’m certainly not saying I’m any kind of expert. I just know that I’ve evolved and improved over the past 20 years.
In journalism school at Humber College, we learned bits and pieces about interviewing. (My friend Brett Walther and I always felt there should have been an entire class on interviewing, given its vital nature to the craft, and we sometimes brainstormed creating it and teaching it at night school.)
One of these tips I know I’ve mentioned before is connected to the beverage order at a sit-down interview. When you interview someone, if they offer you a drink, you’re to always accept the offer. However, upon receiving your drink, you should never finish it. Once your drink is finished, a natural end to the interview has been provided. (I may have mentioned too that I’ve applied the inversion of this principle before to end interviews that have dragged on. That almost leads to a second tip, which is to interrupt people; not in an aggressive way of course, but to keep the talk pithy and focused and to avoid rambling.)
The third tip I’ve always remembered is, and this is going to sound very strange, to listen to what the person you’re interviewing is saying. It sounds strange because, of course, you’re listening, but, as you take notes or record the interview, you’re focusing on taking accurate notes or tidbits that jump out at you for one reason or another. It can often be a far cry from how you listen to (or are supposed to) friends or family during a conversation.
The idea behind this tip is that you allow the conversation to dictate its direction, to an extent, rather than asking a handful of singular, unrelated questions in a clunky manner.
When I was a young journalism student, I would do just that. I would prepare my notes with questions, allowing a block of white space under each one for my notes, always tape recording (that’s right - tape) the chat as a back-up to my notes, as I learned that skill.
The results were lacklustre to say the least. Looking back (and at the time) I could see folks who were used to being interviewed a lot squirm a bit at my inexperience, but because I was a student, they were always very kind and helpful, even when I would ask a stupid question (they do exist, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) or miss the point.
Some of my journalism school interviews were like that: George Stroumboulopoulos, The Weakerthans and a U2 historian were all early interviews for either Humber College or my internship at Chart Magazine, Canada’s now-defunct answer to Rolling Stone, that were, frankly, embarrassing when I look back.
I once interviewed a Toronto musician for Chart and it was my first on a digital recorder. I lost the whole interview and called the guy, hat in hand, and told him what happened and he was kind enough to do the whole thing again. (Clearly I should have stayed with tape, though I eventually did find the original - that was when I learned about different “folders” on a digital voice recorder.)
For a college assignment, I once interviewed long-time Toronto Star reporter and columnist Jim Coyle and I was more focused on the tape recording than I was on him, and I think he noticed. He was kind and helpful and gave me some interview tips, along with a tour of the old Star offices at 1 Yonge Street.
Long story short (as to avoid rambling), it’s not easy interviewing people. There’s an art to it and it takes a lifetime to get just right.