The Interviewer’s Goal: Enabling a Mental Journey into the Past
Stumbled upon this awesome description of The Interviewer’s Dream Moment, posted by Don Ray. It’s part of the setup for a story he’s going to tell, but it jumped out as the! most! perfect! description! of a kind of zen state of interviewing:
Countless times in my 30+ years as a reporter, producer, author and teacher, I’ve looked into the eyes of people I was interviewing and realized that they weren’t there with me—they had taken a mental journey into the past. They were somewhere else. I eventually learned to remain as silent as possible so that they could stay in that place—any questions would quickly bring them back to the present.
He goes on to talk about an experience where he was transported into hiw own past, back in Vietnam, trying to save a dog’s life. It’s a story worth reading for its own sake.
The unwritten part of this process for the interviewer is to ask the right kind of question that facilitates the trip into the past. That’s the subject for another post (I’m focusing on interviewing right now, so we’ll examine ways to ask good questions).
Contained in that description is a two-part recognition of the magical, zen place of interviewing.
- Recognize if the interviewee has gone on a “journey” by the look in his or her eyes. (Faraway look? You know it when you see it)
- If so, don’t say a thing. Let them keep talking from that place they’ve gone to.
“The Zen Art of Interviewing.”
I like it. Sometimes I simply refer to it as helping people get into “the trance”. Not original—some of the interviewers I admire have mentioned this hypnotic-like state.
Here’s a trick I use with every interview nowadays (whether it’s an oral history or a personal profile or even a news story):
“Take me back to the earliest recollection you have of being alive—when you’re the youngest you remember being. Whatever comes to your mind first, tell me about the place, the situation unfolding and the people who are present there with you.”
The original goal of what I thought was a “throw-away question” was to trick the person into talking in the first-person, narrative form. That way, when they get to the stuff in their life that I’m most interested in, they’ll tell it in a sequential manner—as if it’s unfolding as they’re talking.
Turns out that it IS unfolding as they’re talking—and they’re back there in time.
But it turns out that I discovered that there’s a magic to asking them that question (prompt). I started realizing that people go to an early recollection that has remained in their mind for a reason. You’ll see the first story I wrote in which I used that first recollection—and you’ll see why. http://www.donray.com/BrianPetraborg.htm.