The Born Freelancer on the Care and Ethical Treatment of Interviewees, Part 2

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.


In my last post, I wrote about caring for and ethically treating one of our most important freelance career assets, interviewees. In this post I would like to add a few more thoughts to the discussion.

First, let me thank Story Board reader and fellow freelancer Lesley Evans Ogden for sending in an excellent question. (I will try to always answer questions you send in). For those of you who did not read it, here is Lesley’s comment:

Written by Lesley Evans Ogden
on April 5, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Thanks this is a great post. Lots of very interesting points and tips in
here. One question that wasn’t addressed here: I’m curious to know how
others deal with the exceptionally wordy and talkative interviewee – the
expert that turns what you think will be a 10 minute interview into a 1
hour one. Tips for politely but efficiently steering them back on track,
and cutting off verbal diarrhoea so it doesn’t carve a huge hole out of
your day? How do you cut through the blah blah when you have someone that
absolutely loves the sound of their own voice? It doesn’t happen to me
often, but when it does, it’s a real pain.

A great question, Lesley. In my experience it is always a contextual matter; it will depend on the interviewee and the situation. Alas, there’s no one easy answer to fit all circumstances. But how you prepare your interviewee beforehand can help.

Prepping the interviewee
All interviewees respond best to an interviewer who knows what they are doing, what they want and how they plan to go about it. Never be afraid to demonstrate you know your craft by professionally guiding a conversation; it is after all conversation with purpose – to most effectively extract their story. Professionals will understand; nonprofessionals will accept it if you have explained your intentions.

Nothing makes an interviewee ramble on more (or shut up completely!) than an interviewer who appears nervous, unsure, or unappreciative. One secret is to always exude an aura of confidence about the interview itself. To do this I always try to convey what I hope is the truth, i. e. that this will be something great. If you don’t believe it, at least in the moment, why should your interviewee? Or your editor/producer? Or your reader/listener? My approach is always “You have a great story to tell and together we will create something folk will want to read/hear”. So get your interviewee on-side as soon as possible by establishing an implicit agreement between you to create something excellent. How your interviewee feels about you, how much they like you and especially how much they trust you, will all greatly influence what they tell you. And any coaching you may offer in the process to reduce excessive verbiage will be more readily understood and accepted.

Ok, enough theory. Here are some pragmatic tips based on my own experiences. Note: although I’ve offered specific advice in specific categories all the advice could readily apply to all categories. Most verbose interviewees will require a combination of approaches.


The verbose professional interviewee

In this category I would include some politicians, PR reps, broadcasters, etc. They will go on and on because they may feel you are not in control and that they need to take over. They are most comfortable when they feel that they are in charge – which is their default professional mode. Put yourself in their position. Think of how uncomfortable you would be if the tables were turned and you were being interviewed.

* You must quickly show them you are in charge and capable of bringing out the best of their story and that they can therefore relax. I begin by in effect requesting their total cooperation in the undertaking ahead. I make it clear that it is now their job to tell their story and my job to maximize the efficiency of that storytelling. (You don’t have to be uncritical of it of course.) And sometimes less is simply more. If they start going on and on you can now stop them in the interests of clarification. They’ve already implicitly agreed to let you do this. It’s a win-win scenario for both of you. Ask them to speak more precisely. How? Well, I hate interviewers who repeatedly interrupt with “So what you’re saying is…?” but it can be an effective basic tool.

* Pros may also try to take over and go on and on if they feel you are not well prepared. It’s the old “BS baffles brains”! It may not always be intentional, they may just go on autopilot, spouting their prepared spiel if they feel unchallenged. You must always be as well briefed and prepared as possible so they know you are no pushover and that they must always stay focused. Demonstrate your knowledge of the issues early on, they may even assume you know more than you do! (Unless you choose to deliberately play it “dumb” as strategy to see if they fall into any traps.)

* If they go on I have no hesitation in cutting in firmly but politely with something like, “Most interesting and we can come back to that later but what I’d really like to know is…” That way they won’t get their egos too bruised. And they will respect you keeping the interview moving forward. You can choose to come back to the topic you dumped later if you feel it is worth it.

* And if they still go on when they should know better, they generally will respond well if you move them along with a knowing smile. I will interrupt with a joke that also placates their egos, something like “You’re good, you could write a whole encyclopedia on this – but you know I’m just contracted for 2500 words, right?” So now they know you know exactly what they were doing!

* If all else fails on at least one occasion I’ve blatantly lied with a hard core pro who blathered on and on. I looked at my recording gear and exclaimed in mock horror, “OMG, I’ve only got tape/battery/memory enough for another 10 minutes!” You can then ask them to phrase their comments more concisely from then on out of sheer “technical” necessity.


The verbose nonprofessional interviewee

In this category are folk who are not trained or hired to be professional public speakers. Are they overly excited about their story or are they simply nervous about being interviewed?  Either way they too can go on. The danger of cutting them off too soon is that you might miss something very useful for your story that you didn’t know to ask about in the first place. (See my last post about the “organic” approach.) So I let them go on a little bit (assuming this is recorded for later broadcast or print transcription, and not a live interview!) From the start I try to determine how much room to give them and how much guidance they need. All non pro interviewees especially need to feel confident that you are taking them and their story seriously even if you ask provocative questions.

* If they go on at first due to bad nerves I’ve found that a confident manner and kindly tone of voice will usually put them at their ease and quickly reduce their unnecessary verbiage.

* Some nonprofessional interviewees may go on and on because it is the first time they have ever told anybody their story. It may come forth first hesitantly, painfully, only to start gushing out of them once the emotional dam gates have broken open. I always try to treat this category of interviewee with extra special care and understanding and to try to give them as much extra time as possible (within reason.)

* At the opposite end of the scale, some may talk more than is absolutely required because they worry you will not tell their story “their way” in its totality, the way they’ve always told it to their family or friends. They won’t appreciate that much of their personal narrative is simply not useful to you. I try to sound out the interviewee ahead of time on this kind of thing and attempt to reassure them about my own desire to learn as much as possible from them, and of my genuine desire to bring out all the key points of their story even if I need to get them to occasionally condense it.

If they still go on I have a couple techniques I like to try.

* I tell them that there is so much to talk about that it could well be worth a second interview. This may or may not end up being completely true but in the moment it leaves the door open. The fact that there may be other opportunities to tell their story will often calm them down. They will no longer feel they have to get it all out in one session.

* If they dwell on irrelevant details I politely but firmly cut them off and explain that I need to understand generalities first before specifics. And are they OK with this approach? I can then of course still guide them from the general to relevant specifics of my choosing. If they start going on again about irrelevant specifics I remind them about our agreement and quickly move things along again. (Conversely if they go on and on about generalities with few specifics I simply invert the technique). The secret is to gently but firmly guide them but always let them feel it is in order to get the best out of their story (and it is!)


Only the lonely

Of course some non pros are simply lonely and you are someone new to talk with. The warning signs are usually all there if you look for them – the sad smile, the eager interest in your own life and work and the reluctance to end the conversation. They always have “just one more thing” to add. But it is never anything they haven’t already told you. If you are in their home it is almost always difficult to exit hastily, you are in unfamiliar territory. I always try to do a phoner or meet out in a public space with non pros at least initially (which is a good idea for your safety and security too.) If they just want to chat out of loneliness you can pretty easily tell when they’ve exhausted their story and begin to go off topic or repeat themselves. I always stay polite and professional but remind them that unfortunately I am on a deadline and must get away to my next interview. It’s a bit like leaving your kid at nursery school. They’ll be fine after you’ve left. But don’t look back or you may start feeling guilty.

I hope these additional thoughts will be helpful when you run across an unnecessarily verbose interviewee. The big secret is the same as in conducting all interviews – first, to establish a rapport – genuinely gaining their trust within an implicit agreement to help you help them tell their story well. Then it’s a matter of always staying polite and respectful but, when required, firm in your direction and confident in your control of the situation.


Have you ever been trapped by a talkative interviewee? Did you manage to get the interview back on track without causing offence? We’d love to hear about your interviewing techniques in the comments section below.

Posted on April 26, 2013 at 9:13 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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