Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Nalder is known for his ability to get people to open up and tell all they know, on the record. His book, Tankers Full of Trouble, won the Investigative Reporters and Editors book award in 1994. He has taught interviewing and investigative reporting workshops in five countries, each year adding new techniques learned from journalists, cops, FBI agents, and lawyers. "Loosening Lips" is Nalder's workshop on the art of the interview.
By Eric Nalder
An interview is a seemingly casual but directed conservation that clicks open locked doors, organizes scattered memories, and penetrates privacy chambers. The craft is both art and science. I learned the techniques described in this handout during 35 years of reporting, and 20 years of teaching workshops. Many were borrowed from psychiatrists, psychologists, police officers, FBI agents, lawyers, private investigators, social workers, journalists, and others who regularly interview people. Though I am an experienced interviewer, I regularly re-read my own handout. These techniques require constant practice and the skills must be regularly upgraded. There is no personality best suited for conducting an interview, and anyone can learn. Each individual should tailor these techniques to their personality. And it is okay to fail as long as you learn from your mistakes.
THE SET UP
Research: Preparation is as important as execution. Never pick up a phone or knock on a door without research. If you have only five minutes, do a search on your subject on the Internet. Given more time, check clips, resumes, biographies, various writings, and home addresses (map the address on a locator program just to get a feel for it). Look at court records, bankruptcy files, association memberships, etc. Question friends, family, neighbors and associates. If you are going to talk to a person about a machine, read the operating manual ahead of time. Obviously, a well-researched interviewer will know better what to ask, but there's another advantage in all this preparation. A well-researched interviewer is an empowered conversationalist. On the phone your voice will sound more authoritative: in person your demeanor will be more hypnotic. Yacht buyers candidly described their multi-million-dollar tax breaks and tanker captains admitted their mistakes to me because I could converse so easily about their boats, their lives, and their businesses.
Plan: Plan your interviews, perhaps consulting a friend or colleague. You'll need to consider who to interview first, and where. You'll consider how much time you'll have, whether to tape record, and how much to reveal. My general advice: early in any investigation I interview someone with key knowledge to test the tip or theory. Then I work from the periphery inward, i.e. talking to witnesses on the edge of an event first, and then moving toward more and more central characters (unless I'm in a hurry, at which time I will reverse this procedure). I like to interview people at the place where they are doing the thing I am writing about. However, whistle-blowers and reluctant targets are best contacted at home. You might calm a nervous source by taking him or her for a walk. A lunch appointment requires your subject to spend at least an hour with you. A tape recorder might cause nervousness at first, but it will "disappear" during the interview. (Disadvantage: you'll need time for transcribing). I like to reveal as much as possible to an interview subject, but beware of feeding information to people that will come back to you as fact. There is an old police adage: "Don't ask, 'Did you see the red car,' but instead ask, 'What did you see?'"
Organize: Write single-word clues on the flap of your notebook to remind you of issues you want to cover. Add to that list during the interview so you don't interrupt but are prepared to tackle unresolved issues later. Organize paperwork that you might pull out so you don't fumble and disrupt. Prepare a comprehensive all-purpose question for cases where the door might slam in your face. Prepare the photographer and any fellow interviewer so you will work well together.
Inner Interviewing: Prior to any interview you must silence your ego and thus prepare yourself to listen. The ego is a primitive device installed in your brain to tell you when to flee from tigers. Unless you regularly interview tigers, it will misinform you during any interview, hectoring you with concerns about your next question or whether you dressed properly. I silence my ego using three steps. The first step is preparation, as described above. Then I imagine a successful interview, closing my eyes the way a ski racer does, envisioning the event from start to finish. Finally, I meditate, very briefly, by simply emptying my brain of all thoughts and breathing deeply. Also as part of my preparation, I empty myself of uneducated pre-conceived notions, opinions, and prejudices, thus preparing myself to learn.
The Opener: Approach your subject as though you belong there. Straightforward introductions are best. Be open and unafraid. Never lie.
Keep It Going: When the door is closing on your face, find common ground. "By the way, I notice you've got a poodle. I've got a poodle. Weird dogs. Just the other day . . ." The key here is to get a person talking about anything. A Danish reporter once told me he asks people what kind of car they prefer to drive. I'll ask about a plant I noticed near the front door. Once the conversation gets going, give the person a simple task that is on point ("I noticed you are the safety director but so-and-so is the safety manager. What's the difference?).
Tap Their Curiosity: Offer to explain what you are working on, what you know about or what you have been told. Prepare for this opener ahead of time, and don't express opinions.
Get Them To Speak About Others: Bring a list of people who are players in the story you are working on. (A list gleaned from payrolls, or phone books, etc). One-by-one, ask your subject to talk about these individuals. People are more comfortable talking about others than about themselves. In talking about others, they will reveal more about themselves and their organization, and they'll point you in valuable directions.
No Big Deal: Never argue about a person's reluctance to talk, but instead interview their fears. They'll sometimes dissuade themselves of misperceived perils. Respond to the "I can't comment" by explaining that you need their help, and tell them (if you can say so honestly) that talking to you is no big deal, because you are contacting a lot of people and because you are there to learn. Express all this with a soft but relentless momentum, thus massaging their objections into a realization of possibilities. Propose alternatives. Steer. Keep the conversation rolling. Respond to the "I'm afraid to comment" with a little sympathy and reassurance (though it must be honest reassurance). Listen to people's concerns and understand them. Propose easier "assignments" like "just describe your job" or "tell me about your town." You'll get to the harder stuff later.
Public Official Or Other Big Shot: Gently, without being insulting, respond to a "no comment" from an "important" person or bureaucrat by reminding how bad that sort of thing looks in print. "Let's find a way to talk about this. Tell me about this one aspect, for instance . . . " As a last ditch, explain that you will be doing a story whether they cooperate or not (if that's true). Explain that you want to get it right. Offer to call back shortly before the story runs to describe what will be in the story. (In the process, get all the contact numbers).
Ratcheting: If a subject insists on talking "on background," make a formal agreement and explain that you will try later to get them to talk on the record. Take notes. At the end of the interview, or at a follow-up interview, pick out quotes that aren't too damning and say: "Now what about this thing you said here. Why can't you say that on the record?" If they agree to put that comment on the record, go to another one in your notes and say: "Well, if you can say that on the record, why can't you say this? And so on. I have gotten an entire notebook on the record this way. Sometimes the interview subject will not agree to a particular quote - "I could never say that in print" - but they'll provide an alternative. Interview that alternative, and you will get what you need on the record. If they insist on anonymity, however, you must honor it.
Anonymity: Don't accept information "on background" blithely. Even if it means going back several times, convince people to go on the record. (Absolutely "off-the-record" information is useless, since you can't use it under any circumstance. Avoid it. It's a waste of time.)
Detours: If a person won't talk, go to others in his or her office or to associates. You will get more information, and by doing this you will loosen them up.
The Statue Of Liberty Play: Emphasize that people are more believable when they put their name behind what they say. It's the American Way: A robust public debate.
For The Sake Of Clarity: There are cases where someone tells you part of a story and then balks. Or you already know part of a story and can't get the rest. Try saying, "look, you've already told me this much (or, I already know this much). You had better tell me the rest. I mean, you don't want me to get it wrong. I sure don't want to get it wrong."
No Questions, Please: Sometimes making a statement is better than asking a question. Read from a document or repeat something someone said. A question might produce nothing more than a "yes, no or I don't know", A statement will provoke a comment. On one occasion I inadvertently repeated something that was inaccurate to a cop. In correcting me, he dragged out a report I wanted to see.
Use What You Think You Know: Ask the official WHY he fired the whistle-blower rather than asking WHETHER he did the deed. The question presumes you already know even if you don't have it confirmed. They'll start explaining rather than denying.
Lost Reporter: It doesn't hurt to say you need the person's help. "Who is going to explain this to me if you don't?"
Try Again: When the door is slammed in your face, try again a day later or a week later, while you are working on other tasks. Keep trying for months. People change their minds. If it is terribly important, try again a year later. I have spent more than three years getting information from certain people.
GETTING ALL THE GOODS
Chronology: The techniques in this section of my handout are designed to organize the memories of your interview subject, to penetrate levels of privacy and to assure that you are receiving accurate information. Most importantly, take the subject through his or her story chronologically. You will understand the tale better, and you will spot gaps in the timetable. You'll organize the interview subject's memories this way, straightening out their messy mental file cabinet.
Life Story: Get the life story, even in cases where you don't intend to use it. When I interview a lawyer about a case, an engineer about a project, a bureaucrat about a government policy or even a public relations person about their client, I get the life story if I have time. This provides useful information, connections and hints for a better approach.
Logic: Listen for the logic in what a person is telling you. Train yourself to insist that the story make sense, that the facts and the events presented are following an "A-B-C-D" logic. If you hear, instead, something that sounds like "A-C-D" logic, you must find out what happened to "B". It might be missing because you didn't understand something; or the speaker is accustomed to talking to experts; or the speaker doesn't know; or the speaker forgot an aspect of the story; or the speaker hadn't thought about B; or the speaker is lying. These are all important issues to pursue. If you don't understand something, gently insist on an explanation. Never be afraid to ask. Remember this adage from Investigative Reporters and Editors: "There are no embarrassing questions; there are only embarrassing answers."
How: When a person says something important, ask the key question: "How do you know that?" It sheds light on credibility, extracts more detail and is a door opener to other sources. The inevitable answers will include: "I heard it from so and so, I saw it in X document or I was there". Follow these responses with more extensive questioning to determine the location and background of "so and so" or the ways to obtain "X document". Also follow up with the question: "How else to you know that." People often provide cursory roadmaps at first, but if you persist you will discover other routes. When a person replies to your question by saying they know about something because they were there, try hypnosis.
Hypnosis: When an interview subject person brings up an important event, slow them down and use hypnosis to get at the details. Ask questions that anchor the person in the past. Ask where they were standing that day, what were they doing, what were they wearing, what was the temperature and what were the noises around them? You may need to do this several times. People prefer to tell their stories, especially troubling stories, in the abstract. "I drove the car off the cliff." Once the subject is mentally anchored in the past - is back in the kitchen preparing to walk to garage to start the car - ask your questions in the present tense rather than past tense. Ask questions like: What are you doing now? What is your friend saying? By doing this, you will enliven the memory of the person you are talking to. Additionally, you will be there. You and the interview subject will drive off the cliff together.
Why: Don't just ask a person what they did; also ask why they did it. Newspapers can distinguish themselves by explaining events, but if you don't ask why, you'll have a harder time explaining. Questions like this may seem obvious, but listen to your interview tapes. We don't always do what is obvious.
Pay Attention To Detail: Inventory the room thoroughly and in an organized fashion. Look at the walls, the desktop and the lapel pin. Make notes on what you see, and make intelligent use of it during the interview. If you ask someone to tell the story behind an object on the desk or the wall, it can relax and distract. It will also provide you with surprising information. Also, I regularly interviews objects with my eyes. I have asked "questions" of and gotten "answers" from ship engines and stormy seas.
Spontaneity: When you are "on scene", let things happen. Hang around. Listen and watch for the unexpected.
Telephone: If you can't be on the scene, ask people on the phone to describe their surroundings. This will transport you emotionally over the phone lines and provide information (the plaque on a man's wall became a key detail in one story, after I had independently verified what it said). Get people to tell their stories in three dimensions over the phone. Let things happen. Listen and "watch" with your ears for the unexpected.
Use Your Ears: We talk too much during interviews. Let the other person do the talking. Check your biases at the door; listen with an open mind. React with an open mind.
Look For Other Sources: While at the interview, listen and watch for other sources. Meet the secretary, the assistants and the co-workers and make note of details about them. This will come in handy as you turn them into sources.
Take Over: Your demeanor will be important. Be courteous and move with authority and confidence. Without being boorish, walk through doors ahead of your host and stop unexpectedly to chat with someone. If you can, chose your own chair and your position in the room.
Getting The Confession: Ask the subject for the names of people who support him or her. Then ask for the names of people who would criticize. Then ask what those critics are likely to say. This will jar loose uncomfortable information and tips. Ask whether the person has ever been disciplined or fired on the job or in school, charged with or convicted of a crime, arrested for drunken driving, sued, testified in court, etc. Since all this stuff is on a record somewhere, people are reluctant to lie about it.
Liars: If you know someone is lying, allow the liar to spin his or her yarn. Don't interrupt except to ask for more detail. Deceivers frequently provide extensive detail because they think a very complete story will add to their credibility. Listen and take good notes. When the lie has been fully constructed -- down to the last nail -- go away with an arrangement to come back. Re-interview the person, and when they start telling the lie again, get all the detail and arrange to come back again. Sit down with your notes, and logically pry apart the lie (nail by nail). Then re-interview the person, this time logically unraveling the lies. Don't be impatient. The fabricator is now in a corner. Keep them there until their resolve breaks down.
Don't Join: Be sympathetic in manner, but don't join sides with your sources. We always protect anonymous sources, but we also examine them closely. Don't grant anyone a license to lie. Also, don't get sucked in by the embattled congressman who seems so cooperative when he grants you an interview and says, "I don't believe in taking money from those guys." You should say, "that may be true, but I'm asking you whether you took the money, not whether you believe in doing so." Also don't be sucked in by the crook's confession to stealing $10,000 when in fact, if you pry, you will discover the amount was $100,000.
Don't Get Mad: Don't argue, fume, accuse or get angry. When you get angry you grant the recipient ownership of a piece of you, which they can collect on later. Conversely, if they get angry at you, and you handle their rage with aplomb, you will own something of them. That said, you should carefully listen to the sentiments and facts behind another person's anger at you. They might have a good reason to be livid, and even if they don't, there is important information for you contained in their anger.
False End Of An Interview: Whenever possible, interview a person more than once. Every interview has a false end, a point at which you are done with the main line of questioning and you close your notebook. At this point, I always tell people I will need to talk with them again. I get from them every phone number and contact address they can provide. If I don't already have their date of birth for some reason, I'll ask for it, noting that it might help me find them in the distant future should they re-located. Then I'll interview them again, paraphrasing at some point what I already understood them to say. This allows them to correct false impressions, and it inevitably provides me with more complete information. The first interview is like a snowplow, pushing the heavy stuff out of the way, easing my path for the second interview. People are also reassured to know that I am going to contact them again before the story runs.
Innovate: If an outrageous question comes to mind, and seems compelling, ask it. During a phone interview I convinced a man sitting in a bar with a cell phone to pass the phone around so I could talk with his companions. A ship captain allowed me to go through his files only because I asked.
Drain Them: People aren't aware of how much they know. You must guide them through their memory. Visualize your subject as a bucket full of information and empty it.
Honesty: Don't pretend to be someone else and don't lie. You can certainly omit information, but the more you can reveal about the nature of your story, the more comfortable and helpful your subject will be.
Be The Director: A great interview feels like a conversation but moves relentlessly toward the information you need. Keep control, but do so gently.
Be Flexible: You may know what your story is about, but don't get stuck. A really great interview might be one that completely changes your story. Seek the truth, not what you believe to be the truth.
Personality: Let your personality shine through (if you have a good one). Don't be a blank wall. It helps sometimes to tell people about you.
Open-Ended Question: Near the end of an interview, ask the person what else our readers might be interested in. Sometimes people have more than one newspaper-worthy story in them.
Check Back: After the story runs, call the subject for his or her reaction. You'll get additional stories and tips this way.