A New Interviewing Book

In 1986 I published Asking Questions: The Art of the Media Interview. It is still in print, although after the publisher returned the rights to me a few years ago (after several printings and a translation into Italian), I have been publishing it myself.

It’s a book on how to conduct media interviews, from my perspective.

An update is long overdue and, to begin that process, I have decided to write, in an unstructured style, a new interviewing book through postings on this blog.

I’m titling the new book The War of Interviewing, an obvious homage to the War of Art, a wonderful book on creativity by Stephen Pressfield, who, in turn, took his title (I assume) from the ancient military treatise entitled The Art of War, attributed to Sun Tzu.

Like Pressfield’s book, this too will be written in short chapters that, I hope, will be easy to digest and, perhaps, enjoyable to keep returning to for advice or inspiration.

Why This Title?

I don’t believe most interviews are a form of war. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the literally thousands of interviews I’ve conducted over the years have been exceptionally polite, enjoyable and conflict free.

But not all.

Some interviews, especially those involving some degree of accountability, can be extremely combative. The same can apply to interviews with famous people who, for example, object to questions they consider prying or not of the obsequious nature they might prefer.

Sometimes, too, a nervous or hostile or suspicious interviewee can become upset for a variety of reasons, some of which can be warranted. Some not.

No matter the reason for an interview becoming (or starting out as) difficult, a professional interviewer must know how to deal with whatever arises.

All interviewers, however, should be alert to an almost preternatural level, during an interview. In this way, all interviews are a form of war as the interviewer must be willing and able to commit to the process in a way that is not common to most human interactions.

The war, in most cases, is not with the interviewee but with oneself. Take listening as an example. How many of us listen deeply to what other people are saying? How many of us sustain a deep commitment to listening over an hour’s discussion, for example, one in which the other person is doing most of the talking?

Not many, I warrant. But an interviewer must be able and willing to do this. Along with many other demanding requirements.

This blog will delve into the many challenging aspects of the interviewing process, from its warlike components to the most seemingly mundane housekeeping basics.

No Chitchat

As a starting point, I want to talk about chitchat.

A few years ago I was brought in to salvage a book project gone awry. It was an historical celebration of the 100th anniversary of an amazing company in the U.S. The original writer, who had just retired as a lifelong newspaper journalist, hadn’t been able to produce a draft that met the client’s expectations.

When I first met with the company’s CEO, a no-nonsense guy who impressed me with his clear but demanding approach to matters, he made one central demand when I said I’d need to re-interview him (the original writer had spent considerable time with the CEO):

“No chitchat,” he said. Emphatically. “The last guy had no idea what he was doing. He wasted my time.”

I knew exactly what he meant. I had read the transcripts of the interviews and they were not productive. They were rambling, unfocused conversations that, I thought, revealed how much the writer needed to show off his considerable intellectual skills.

The writer, indeed, was smart. But he had some deep-seated need to impress; and, in doing so, there was no real purpose to the interviews. The exchanges were classic, rambling conversations.

Unfortunately, the hapless interviewer didn’t know that an interview should be conversational but not a conversation.

It’s an incredibly important distinction that’s worth stopping to consider.

It reminded me of a comment Warner Troyer, the late esteemed TV journalist, had said to me when I interviewed him for Asking Questions.

An interview, he said, “bears about as much relationship to a conversation as walking across the street has to do with a pas de deux.”

In other words, an interview isn’t just talking to someone. It must have a higher, more structured, purpose. I have heard many chitchat interviews. Almost all fail to accomplish what the interviewer likely wanted to achieve.

As this blog progresses, I will come back to this point many times.

If you’re conducting an interview for print, broadcast or online, you’re supposed to have a purpose, a goal, a set of expectations. These can be hard to accomplish at the best of times.

I can tell you, from direct experience: if you don’t know where you are hoping to go (hoping is a key word), the chances of getting there diminish.

You don’t chat with interviewees. You engage them in a conversation that you have planned (which, of course, rarely goes the way you anticipate; how you respond is the mark of a great interviewer).

Anyone who thinks it’s the same as just talking with someone is, in my opinion, sadly unaware of how people communicate. Especially under the pressure of a media interview. There’s so much involved.

I will explore those aspects in the blogs ahead.