You’ll have your prepared questions with you in the interview, and you’ll begin going through them. But the conversation is like to — no, it will — diverge from your best-laid plans. Here are some tactics for generating new questions and responses on the fly …
Silent probe: Sometimes the best question is the one that has no words. Your interviewee says something that you (a) don’t understand, (b) don’t believe or (c) is incomplete, and you think they might be hesitating to continue — you simply stay silent and work your nonverbal cues: eye contact, nodding your head. You indicate: I’m waiting, I know there’s more. So the interviewee sees the all-clear and will feel compelled to fill the void.
Nudging probe:This is one step up from silence. You simply add a short verbal nudge to your nonverbal cues. You’re still smiling or nodding and making eye contact, but you add a nudge.
It’s just one or two words, but it’s still a question — a very open one — and still very effective in keeping things moving.
Informational probes: You’re listening carefully to the interviewee’s responses, you’re not just a stenographer recording everything verbatim and sticking only to the prepared questions. If an answer is vague, you hear that, you determine that, and you pursue it by asking for more information.
“Tell me more about that.”
“What precisely does that mean?”
“Will that affect this then?”
But you have to be listening!
Restatement probes: Sometimes you’re going to ask a question and you’re going to get a completely different answer, as if to another question. Or a vague answer, or an evasive answer. So you’ll have to repeat the question, or restate it. Watch the Sunday morning news shows. George Stephanopolous has to do this all the time. He’ll ask a politician a perfectly clear, direct question, but the politician has been briefed to stay on certain “talking points” which he simply parrots, even if they have little to do with George’s question. So George will say, “That’s not what I asked,” and try to restate it. You won’t be so combative here, but the tactic is the same.
Reflective probes: Instead of restating your question, here you restate the interviewee’s answer. You’re making sure you understand what’s been stated.
“So what you’re saying is…?”
“You’re certain it was Col. Mustard in the ballroom with a candlestick?”
These are good for clarifying your information, and they also display for the interviewee how attentive and caring you are.
Mirror probes: Basically the same as a reflective question, only in greater detail. You’re not restating one answer, you’re summarizing several answers from the interview.
“So, to make sure I understand this clearly…?”
Read aloud from your notes. Clarify.
Clearinghouse probe: No matter how certain you are that you’ve collected all the information or data you sought in your interview, never leave a topic or end an interview without a clearinghouse probe. More often than you expect, this is where you’ll get the zingers, the surprise information, the juicy stuff. So you’ve asked and the interviewee has answered, and you think you’re done — but you ask one more.
“What else can you tell me?”
“Is there anything else I should know?”
I end every single interview I’ve ever done with this question: “What haven’t we covered that you’d like to discuss?” I’d say 2-3 times out of 10 the answer to that question becomes a whole new topic of the interview, often the most interesting one and the one I use in the lead of my story. Interviewing a musician named Chris Difford a while ago, I asked that, and he told me he’d recently broken his hand — good information to have and report for a guitar player booked to play a show! Could he still play? How was this affecting the tour?
The 'dumb' question: One last tip: Don’t be afraid to appear dumb. That’s overstated, but it makes an important point — it may be necessary to ask the occasional obvious question. You may want to ask questions to which you already know the answer. Why? Because your goal is to get this person on record with this information, so you ask the dumb question so the information comes out of their mouth, not yours, so you then can quote them on it.
One other tactic of the obvious question: It can relax your interviewee, getting them talking about things that are easy to talk about. Remember: you want them talking and feeling used to talking. So if an obvious question gets them doing that, fine. It can also level the playing field. If the interviewer is of a higher status than the interviewee, an obvious question can help bring down the interviewer to what the interviewee feels is his/her level. Let them educate you, even if you’re already educated. It can lead places.