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Handling the interview

While no interviewee, in the UK and Western tradition at least, wants to spend ages setting the scene, a little ice-breaking in ail but the most urgent of situations is an essential aid to communication; a sort of throat-clearing that allows interviewer and interviewee to gather their thoughts and concentrate wholeheartedly on the business at hand. Offers of coffee, getting note-books and papers out, assessing character and situation, anal-mine the scene, queries about the weather, etc, can all be got out of the way in this period, leaving you clear to get on with the interview.

I find one of the easiest ways to get people into the interview is to ask their name, address, occupation and phone number. This has two purposes: it guarantees you have that basic information should something happen — a fire alarm or whatever, It also eases the interviewee's nerves, just as the TV quiz show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? helps the contestant settle in by asking laughably easy questions up to the first £1,000, so your early questions should do the same. If their name is unusual, ask them to spell it out or even write it themselves in your notebook in capital letters. Tryin g to write Takitheodopoulis when spelt out by a man with a heavy Greek accent can lead to inaccuracy.

You must always be polite and sympathetic. It doesn't matter how probing or unwelcome your questions are, if it is asked with enough politeness and sympathy and with a smile in your voice, the person will often answer, particularly if you make it clear you are waiting politely for their sparkling response. People are so highly conditioned to respond to questions that no matter how much they may not want to answer, they often feel compelled to do so, unless we interrupt them. When an interviewee is holding something back, you can just sit there looking expectant. Often they will fill the vacuum that quickly forms by expanding on their answer. Although this rarely fools the experienced, who will merely say something they want to say rather than something you want them to say, it is amazing how often people will say a little more than they intended.

Whether for TV, radio or newspapers, your job is to persuade the person to talk in the hope that they will eventually say something worth hearing. It is your job to sift through half an hour of drivel to find the few seconds of gold that explains your story. This is why a shorthand notebook is of more value than a tape recorder. If you are working for print, you will then include that quote in the story. If for radio or TV, you will try to get them to say it again live for the tape recorder or video camera.

Try to build up a relationship with the person. They have to be confident that you are going to treat what they tell you sympathetically; they have to feel comfortable talking to you. Whilst they must dominate the conversation with you prodding them in the right direction with questions from time to time, you can often get someone to open up even further if you can relate a brief anecdote that shows a shared experience. The fellow-feeling that this can include can often bring the best out of an interviewee. Most people feel most comfortable when the conversational load between two people is about 50/50. Take the balance too far one way and the person will feel that the other person isn't interested or that they are being marginalised. An interview is different in that the interviewee expects to talk more but you should still aim to talk about 30 per cent of the time, not just quizzing them with question after question, but talking to them and above all, listening to what they are saying. You don't want the interview to feel like an inquisition. Some interviewers are so keen to show how good they are, that they are asking the next question before the interviewee has finished answering the last one. Not only is this irritating, but it can confuse and fluster an interviewee. A major press conference when scores of reporters are yelling out questions rarely persuades the interviewee to open up — it's too easy just to ignore the barrage of questions and speak to the preprepared text. Some reporter's rapid fire approach often has a similar effect.

A good interviewer is someone whom people trust and to whom they feel comfortable talking. Everyone likes a good listener. Small encouragements of the 'How exeiting,"Did it really?', Now, never heard of that happening before' variety can persuade the interviewee of how interested you are. Our questions and conversational gambits need to prove that we are listening to what they are saying and that it interests us. Body language and eye contact can be extremely important in this dialogue. 'Nonverbal communication comprises 65 per cent of all communication'. Some researchers put the figure even higher. While a lot of this nonverbal communication supports and contextualises verbal communication, it is also a useful tool to hold up your end of the conversation without speaking. Nods of the head, hand movements, gestures and facial expressions can all show encouragement and interest, and these are vitai for a broadeast interview where verbal encouragement is not possible. Nods, smiles and head movements must replafe the short affirmative comment. It's important to be aware of trying to do this while still remaining natural about it.

 
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