The art of the long-form interview often a case of “good old fashioned empathy”

his post originally appeared on The Citizen, Saturday 29 October 2016

Aspiring journalists have been told the secret to successful longform interviewing lies in dedicating hours towards research, combined with big doses of “good old-fashioned empathy”.

“Interviewing is a right and a privilege,” said Melbourne journalist Ramona Koval, who added that the notion of trust between an interviewer and their subject was vital for drawing together the elements of a good story. The former might arm themselves with 30 questions for an hour-long interview but, ideally, these should be a kind of “safety net” in case the subject turned out to be less than forthcoming.

“But [if] the person isn’t prepared to enter into the spirit of things, then you don’t really have the other half and I think this idea of trust is very important – if they are smart they can get to know as much about you as you do about them.”

Jane Hutcheon of ABC TV’s One Plus One(link is external) program agreed that interviewing involved a lot of give and take on both sides and, crucially, respect on the part of the journalist.

“It is a privilege to get someone to take several hours out of their day. They don’t feel they are being grilled with me; I think people think they are coming in for a nice friendly chat.”

The effect was deliberate. “When people walk into our space it is kind of like they are walking into a cocoon. They have obviously got a story they want to tell you and often [it is] like their lives have spilled out — everyone leaves feeling really good. It’s like therapy for us all.”

Koval and Hutcheon joined fellow author Philip Chubb, the head of Journalism at Monash University(link is external), to dissect the art of the longform interview. The New News panel(link is external) agreed that unearthing the nuggets of information necessary for a successful longform interview took hours of preparation and a keen sense of being able to listen to what was being said, and how it was being uttered.

For Hutcheon, leaving a space or a pause in the conversation was crucial for extracting the best from her subjects and something that she believes cannot be done in a traditional live TV news interview.

“You can’t have dead space [in news]. You can’t wait for [foreign minister] Julie Bishop to pause and say something; she will fill it with more stuff.

“On One Plus One, the spaces almost make people reach over and open their bag and give you more that you don’t expect. So, it is really important to encourage people if they look as if they want to say more about something . . . and it can get quite poignant. Just two people looking each other in the eye.”

Hutcheon said she was not immune from the emotion of some of the stories she covered. “I have started to cry a lot more recently in interviews, usually after the other person. And it’s very interesting watching their eyes, and they are watching my eyes, and the number of times our eyes fill up with tears.”

“When people walk into our space it is kind of like they are walking into a cocoon. They have obviously got a story they want to tell you and often [it is] like their lives have spilled out — everyone leaves feeling really good. It’s like therapy for us all.” — Jane Hutcheon, ABC TV’s One Plus One

Hutcheon remembered a particularly moving interview with Sydney Pastor Graham Long(link is external), whose adopted son had died suddenly at the age of 29.

“Pastor Long always wore his son’s watch, which had stopped at one minute to midnight, and this was a constant reminder to him that we may all have just one minute left and that he needs to live in the present,” she said.

“That affected me because I’m so awful with that. I seem to live my life either so far forward or so far in the past, and so I love it when I meet people who are in the moment. In a sense, that is what the weekly interviews do for me, they keep me in the present.”

Long-time broadcaster Koval agreed that “good old-fashioned empathy” was a vital element in a successful interview, but research was also crucial.

She said her extensive preparation was one of the reasons that Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs talked so freely with her in a recent interview.(link is external)

“She was happy I had done all the reading. She knew I knew the statutes. She knew I had read her reports on “the forgotten children” — unlike some of the Senate characters who refused to read it. So .. . . you take someone’s work seriously and you enter into the space of their work and their life, and you say, ‘here I am, I want to hear from you’.”

Fellow panelist Chubb said he was surprised that Koval had got so much information from a single 90-minute interview.

“For main interview figures, I’d often prepare by having coffee with them beforehand, to get through the mechanical aspects of preparation if you like, but also to begin to establish a rapport with them, which is so vital to obtaining the information you need for a narrative.” — Philip Chubb, writer and academic

“When I first read that interview, I thought it was a part of a much longer interview, one where everyone relaxes into the process and where people become willing to say things beyond what they would normally say in an interview . . .  I had believed that it was an afternoon spent with the recorder running.”

Chubb said that the key to getting the most out of an interview subject was to approach the person on the other side of the table in a way “that creates empathy in both directions”.

He said he also liked to interview the person more than once to enrich his story.

“For main interview figures, I’d often prepare by having coffee with them beforehand, to get through the mechanical aspects of preparation if you like, but also to begin to establish a rapport with them, which is so vital to obtaining the information you need for a narrative.”

Hutcheon shared a final insider’s tip with the audience, saying she made it her goal to end all of her interviews on a positive note. “I like to leave the audience with a sense of hope.”

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