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Interviewers on interviewing: how to make great tape

Filmmaker and freelance radio producer Andrew Norton sits down with Sean Cole, a producer at This American Life, to discuss interviewing techniques, why sounding smart isn't smart, and how to get the interviewee to "make that leap off the cliff into the valley of good tape."

Interviewing doesn't come naturally to me. I'm shy. I don't know what to do with my hands when I talk to people at parties. And if I'm being totally honest, I don't much care for meeting new people. That's why as a filmmaker and freelance radio producer I have to try hard to make myself a better interviewer. So when I listen to some of my favourite radio shows and podcasts, I'm half listening just to learn. How do the people who make the stuff I love get great tape? (I actually made a whole video series about trying to steal their secrets.) My worst fear is coming away from an interview and not getting enough stuff — or enough good stuff — to make a story.

Andrew Norton (left) and Sean Cole at Gloria Espresso Bar in Toronto. (Andrew Budziak)
That's why when CBC's Doc Project asked me to help make a tutorial for fellow documentary makers, I thought it would be a great opportunity to not only share what I stole but selfishly pick the brain of someone I admire.

Sean Cole is a producer at This American Life. He's worked for Radiolab, 99% Invisible, and APM's Marketplace. I'm a big fan and am always making mental notes when I hear his stories. He seems to get great tape from people. He talks back, he challenges his interviewees in plain language, makes them laugh. He sounds like a natural born interviewer. Turns out he's also had to work hard to hone his craft.

We recently sat down at Gloria Espresso Bar here in Toronto to talk about interviewing while cameras rolled. You can watch it below, but for your convenience (and presumably to increase SEO for CBC) I've broken down some of the interesting tidbits into some tips below.

Press on and may you never come back from an interview empty handed again. [Warning: video contains strong language.]

An interview is a wild thing

An interview isn't a binary exchange: question, answer, question, answer. An interview is more like a wave you have to ride along. It swells up and crashes and you need to be constantly adjusting. It's equal parts terrifying and thrilling. To extend this already stretched surfing metaphor — the trick is to constantly be adjusting your footing and anticipating what the wave is doing.

Make good tape

The term 'making good tape' vs. 'getting good tape' is something Sean got from Brooke Gladstone, co-host and editor of On the Media. He says at first it may sound crass or borderline unethical, but the idea is that you can't go into an interview being simply a passive observer hoping the radio gods smile upon you. A skilled interviewer has be prepared and use techniques coax things out of an interviewee. For me, it's a reminder that you're there to do a job, not just to chat. I mean, be friendly and respectful — but you need to put in work if you want to make something great.

Reverse engineer a plan

To a rookie producer, the impulse is just to point your mic and passively document what's happening. Of course that way you'll come back with mountains of tape and you might not even have a story there. The trick is visualize how you ideally see the story going from what you already know and write a line of question that will get you there. What kind of story is it? What kind of tape would fill that story? Picture the perfect tape and work backwards to make a question that will tee that up. You may be thinking, 'isn't this cheating? Aren't I imposing what I think the story should be?' And you'd be right to think that, that's why we have this next tip ....

Adjust. Because, reality

Planning an interview is like planning a road trip. You plan a route before you leave and know where you're going but when you actually hit the road you get in traffic and take a detour or there's construction or you find a more scenic route. The road map is just so you know your destination and how to get there if everything goes perfectly — which it never does. It should be the same with your line of questions. Sean says he doesn't even look at his question list until the very end. He then gives it a look over while he is collecting room tone just to make sure he didn't miss anything.

Pick 3-5 things

Sean says at This American Life they always plan out three to five things they need to get out of an interview before they go into it. Certain beats you need to hit to piece together a story. It could be getting someone's background, it could be what happened on a certain night, it could be understanding something complex. One thing they always include on that list though is a moment of reflection (more on that later.) That way you can have a manageable mental checklist of what you need for your story that's flexible. Make notes — what do you have, what do you still need?

Develop a split brain

I'm sure I'm not alone in cringing or ripping out my hair when I listen back to an interview you've just wrapped. Suddenly, when back at home or the office, every question you should have asked suddenly becomes crystal clear. Sometimes I'm so preoccupied with not forgetting my next question or something I want to explore that I don't pick up on surprising or interesting things people are saying. Or I don't even react, I just jump into the next thing before I forget it. You have to be present and actively listening while also taking stock of what you have, where you need to go, if the recorder is running, if there is a dog barking nearby, etc. It's something that after talking to Sean I realize just takes time to develop. One tip he did tell me that I will definitely use is that his boss, Ira Glass, will sometimes just stop an interview, pause, look at his notes and then resume right in the middle of an interview. It's okay to slow down and build that into how much time you request from your interviewee.

Sounding smart isn't smart

One thing I always catch myself doing is trying to sound smart while interviewing someone. Maybe sounding smart is the wrong term — it's more like not trying to sound dumb. When an interviewee says something that I don't understand, I just nod politely. It works when you're at a dinner party, but in an interview you have to fight that instinct. If you don't know what your interviewee is talking about, how will your audience? Sean thinks a radio reporter is at an advantage when they actually appear to know less. He told me Radiolab's Jad Abumrad is shameless at stopping interviewees and being careful to have them explain things in plain terms if he doesn't get something (ironic as he's won a MacArthur Genius Award). He just doesn't care. And his show is better for it.

React

Sean says, "One of the most compelling things to hear on the radio is two people interacting … we forget we [the interviewers] are people too." That means mic your questions (even if you don't end up using that tape) and don't be afraid to laugh, react, follow up, say you don't understand or challenge people. He says one of the most useful questions he noticed Ira Glass uses is simply, 'wait, what?' He allows himself to notice when he finds something interesting and trusts the audience will as well. Plus, when you challenge your interviewee (even something simple as Ira's 'wait, what?') it ensures your story isn't a one dimensional fluff piece. It also prods them a bit to react in a dynamic way.

You create the culture of the interview

How you act sets the tone for how the interviewee allows themselves to react. If you're formal and stiff with your questions, the interviewee will subconsciously take the cue and may give you formal, canned answers. Even starting with something like 'what is your name?' gives the sense of 'okay, the interview is started, time to shift tone' — so Sean recommends leaving that sort of thing to the end. Do everything you can to give them permission to be candid and show them you're there because you are genuinely interested in their take or their story. If you're engaged, curious and reacting with excitement — your interviewee is apt to mirror that. It's just human nature and that just makes for better tape. Sean also says if you share a personal story with the interviewee, nine times out of ten, they will be more open to share with you.

The cliff of goodness

Getting that moment of reflection on tape from a subject can elevate your story from a personal anecdote to something everyone can relate to — it can reveal a larger truth. It's the 'why should I care?' factor. Your job is to get that out of your interviewee. As Sean puts it, sometimes people are on their hang glider, edging towards leaping off the cliff and into the valley of good tape — but not quite jumping. You need to help get them there — make them soar, dammit! One way of getting them there was something I learned from Ira Glass in an article for Transom. He posted his raw tape from an interview and it was literally just him asking dead-end question after dead-end question and offering theories that went nowhere until boom — one clicked. It was storytelling through brute force and it made me realize even the best interviewers need to take a couple tries. Another technique is to revisit a question by re-asking it in different ways. With each pass often you get a little bit deeper or the interviewee just takes another crack at articulating their ideas which can make all the difference. Sean also says to try questions like, 'what do you make of that?' or 'what do you take away from all this?'

How do you know when you have the tape you need?

So you're almost done your interview. You got the basics of your story — what happened, in what order, to whom. But how do you know when you've got the interviewee to make that leap off the cliff into the valley of good tape? How do you know you have that special piece of tape that brings it all home? Sean told me, "You just kinda feel it. There's blood in it … there's a pulse to it." It's not necessarily emotional, but it brings some dimension to the story. I realized it's like asking a comedian how they know when a joke is funny — it's a gut feeling and each person has their own tastes. Sean concludes, "Actually the answer is, I know it's the tape I need when I feel like I'm listening to the show. [It's like] I've got the podcast in my earbuds and I'm listening to This American Life. That's when I know it really worked."

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