How I Interview: The Joy of Connecting
By Peter Lourie
How do you get people to feel comfortable during interviews, give real answers, and delve into deep conversation?
Perhaps “interview” is too formal a word. The interviewer-interviewee mindset inherently creates a distance between two people. Instead, the question might be: How you can begin to understand the essence of a person?
After decades of talking to people as research for my books, here are the things I keep in mind when trying to get someone to open up.
Revel in the Connection
For me, it’s all about discovering how to connect. The epigraph to E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End comes to mind: “Only connect…”
The best part of being a writer is spending time with people, getting the experts to talk about what they love: Aztecs, manatees, Erie canal, all of it. I would go so far as to say that I write books to feel the joy of that connection.
Being curious about a person and learning about what they love makes me happy.
Having a genuine interest is the foundation of any real conversation. How many times in a day do we talk past each other, waiting for a person to finish speaking so that we can add our two cents? A good interview is the opposite.
It isn’t enough to register someone’s answer. You have to really listen to what they’re saying and engage with the nuance of their enthusiasm.
To that end, nothing beats face to face conversation. Instead of choosing digital communication, what if we always met in a place. On the side of a mountain, on a river, in a coffee shop. I often wonder how different the world would be if that were the case.
And if a meeting is impossible, talk on the phone so that at least voice can convey the subtle complexities of emotion that text and email lack. The more layers of technology you add, the more sterile communication becomes.
Find the Emotion
When I first meet someone, I root for nuggets of passion. What makes them smile or laugh, why they look sad or fearful. I take my cues from facial expressions and direct eye contact—the surface evidence of deeper veins of ore, the pay dirt.
Whether it’s a manatee scientist looking for a tagged animal in the Amazon or the former chief of the Miccosukee tribe leading me through the Everglades where he lived for fourteen years before meeting a white kid, everyone has something that lights them up.
No matter the person, there is always a vein of passion waiting to be tapped.
A polar explorer reminiscing about his eager dogs after 50 days traveling at 30 below. An Assiniboine elder explaining the oral histories of his tribe that recall encountering Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their way west in 1805. A stranger sharing the location of his favorite swimming hole.
Every person is an opportunity to connect.
If you go to an interview with the goal of sharing it with people, there are certain things you’d like your subject to talk about. There’s nothing wrong with a few planned warm-up questions but instead of planning question after question and sticking to a rigid format, prospect for the gold of their emotion. One of the best ways to do that is simply spending time with a person.
Learning to be silent and not break a long pause in an interview is like fishing for the big fish. Wait, and it might strike your line.
When you hear excitement in their voice, change course and let a new round of questions chase after it. Let the excitement lead the way and you’ll never have a boring conversation.
Curiosity breeds good questions because genuine curiosity is well-received.
Dig for Details
Like an old man on a porch listening to the details of days gone by, I love hearing the details of people’s lives. Where a certain tugboat tied up on the Erie canal in 1847 or which direction Lewis and Clark took around the Great Falls of Montana.
Sometimes, the greatest hurdle to writing a short book for kids is simplifying the massive trove of detail I’ve collected. I’ll wander so deep into a forest of information that I have to use the compass of remembering my audience to find my way out again.
Why learn all that stuff? Because it’s fun to go deep. It’s fun to let loose and see where the flow leads.
When people get on a roll, they’ll tell you all sorts of incredible things—from the details of their lives and general background to things you’d never expect. Embrace it all. Simplify. But leave the interesting details and dialogue.
That tapestry is what makes a story great. Particularly the details.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Whether traveling to a new place or talking to a new person, we humans are great at over-complicating things. Often overthinking leads to inaction. Better to think just a little, dive in, and go with the flow than to think too much and do nothing.
For example, language barriers should never stop a person from wading into a new situation. Sure, it’d be great to prepare well enough for a trip overseas or hire just the right interpreter. But that isn’t always possible. Don’t be dissuaded.
There have been interviews where I knew I wasn’t getting the full picture in Daasanach or Quechua or Pacaa Nova—subtleties and complexities of ideas, information, and thought. But I tried to read the smiles and hand movements and I added those layers to my text. That way, even if the translation isn’t perfect, I still managed to capture some of the person’s essence.
Smiles and looks and emotions can transcend language barriers, and form the heart of a good interview.
Walking with people in a place they live is a particularly wonderful way to have a good conversation. Doesn’t matter if it’s up a mountainside or down main street, there’s something about walking that opens people up.
On some trips, I’ve begun to mic my guides just to capture those moments. That way you get the combination of a relaxing stroll and clear audio. But audio recordings are never as good as writing down impressions. By the time you review the tapes, you may have forgotten those little nuances and expressions. If you can, write them down as they happen.
Humanize the Conversation
It isn’t enough to get a person talking and relay their informational words through writing. To make an interview come to life, you have to add your own subjective commentary that can only be gleaned from your connections with someone.
Like the time I was standing by the manatee pool at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida and Dr. John Reynolds began to tell me how much vegetable matter manatees eat every day.
The information was useful but it was his giggling that caught my attention. I made a side note into my tape recorder: “Did you see how John laughed like a little boy when he talked about manatees passing gas to reach equilibrium in the water?!!”
I had so much information on my tape but this little moment of humanity was the nugget. It showed me why this man loved his manatees.
For me, it all comes down to appreciating the people I interview. The scientists, locals, experts, and lay people. It’s about appreciating the opportunity to connect with them and remembering the joy in their voices and on faces as they talk. So much information, knowledge, and wisdom shared. I guess I’m passionate about other people’s passion for information.
Maybe it runs in my family. My dad, my granddad, they loved people. I remember them beaming in conversations with just about anybody.
A few years ago, during Inupiaq Eskimo spring whale harvest, I was riding with a bowhead whale biologist, Craig George, to the first whale of the season. We were heading down to the ice where the whale was about to be hauled out of the water when Craig stopped his snow-machine in the dazzling spring light. He was absolutely beaming. “Can you beat this?” he said. “I just love it out here.”
He was so happy, I was so happy. People’s joy is infectious. That’s what makes interviews and interviewing so incredible. Passion. Joy. Gratitude.
- Revel in the Connection.
- Follow the Emotion.
- Be Curious.
- Dig for Details.
- Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.
- Try Walking.
- Humanize the Conversation.
- Breathe Gratitude.
- Only Connect.
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