One of my first opportunities to interview someone was with Dr. Huey Barnett, the Founder and President of Youth Educational Support Services, Inc. Dr. Barnett had spent 23 years in nuclear medicine and left that to form an organization to work with youth who needed a second chance. It was exciting to get to know more about his life, and to develop an new skill as a writer.
Technically I was prepared for the moment. I had attended seminars on conducting interviews, read good books on the subject, and met with other writers who routinely did interviews. I prepared questions, had my notebook ready, carried extra batteries for my digital recorder, and finally found the courage to call and schedule the interview. All went well, except, I ignored some of my best teaching and paid a price for it.
My training said to control the location – meet in private. Dr. Barnett suggested we meet at the hotel near where he had another meeting. That sounded great and as I arrived I could see that the hotel had recently been renovated. The lobby was complete with seating, side tables, statues and indirect lighting. Everything still seemed fine as I started my recorder, pulled out my notebook, and began with my first question. That’s when the hotel timer started the beautiful water fountain that was right beside us. It was great for atmosphere, soothing and relaxing, yet I found it less than relaxing spending the next three weeks trying to transcribe the interview over what sounded like Niagara Falls on the recording!
Next, as he began to share about his life spent working with young people, I methodically went question by question through my notes instead of what I had learned, which was to follow the flow of the speaker and take advantage of insights they bring up. I was just determined to get to my next question. Fortunately at some point early on I recognized that his frustration was almost as great as my own. At that moment I dropped the commitment to my questions and began really listening.
It was then that I found follow-up questions that allowed him to reveal aspects I had not anticipated. I thought I knew the man, a successful confident individual. As I listened and asked probing questions that fit the moment, I learned of his struggles and the spiritual depth that both he and his wife had gone through getting to that success.
I have never forgotten that interview and find it a great asset anytime I do one now. In some ways Dr. Barnett comes along in each new interview. I remember the things I almost missed by my over commitment to structure and pay greater attention to the person I am interviewing. Oh, and one more thing, I don’t do interviews at fountains, train stations and blast sites!