Interview tip #6: Choose your words carefully
Sixth in a series of seven blog posts on interviewing techniques for nonfiction authors.
Even the smallest words you choose in your questions can make all the difference to whether your interviewee opens up to you—or snaps shut like a clam.
This isn’t about scripting yourself so much as being aware of how a single word can make a difference to the way someone hears and responds to your question.
Use AND rather than BUT. People tend to interpret BUT as an argument. Instead of saying, “But you said earlier that you really wanted to open your first store in Montana,” try saying, “And yet you really wanted to start in Montana – what made you change your mind?”
Never ask a WHY question. My husband is a pretty argumentative guy (in an endearing way, of course). When he told me this morning that he would be coming back home after running an errand rather than going straight to the office as I expected he would, I asked, “Why?”
“Well alright, I won’t then,” he shot back – only half-joking.
People see “Why?” as a challenge.
Years ago I interviewed a plastic surgeon about one of their patients, a child with severe burns who survived against the odds.
“Why do you think Sophie is different from your other patients?” I asked, late on a Friday afternoon, even though I knew better.
“Every single one of my patients is unique,” he shot back icily. He heard me asking, “Why did you put this one patient on a pedestal?”
“Tell me about” is a wonderful, open way of finding out people’s why. Instead of asking, “Why did you take the train?” try asking, “Tell me about what made you choose to take the train instead of flying?”
In the final post of this series, find out how handing your interviewee a magic wand can open up your conversation in unexpected ways.
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