Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How to Interview a Stranger, Part Two

Previously, on This Blog:

I’m organizing a Ginny Owens concert. As part of my publicity efforts, I thought, “I could interview her! We could talk about the intersection of faith and the arts!”

The day of the interview arrived. I started to get nervous. Would I babble? I pressed the button to start the call.

I got her voicemail.

And now, the conclusion.

I’d never gotten someone’s voicemail on Skype before. I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I leave a message? Would she get it? I hung up.

I fidgeted for a minute, then tried again. Same result. I waited a bit longer and tried again. And again.

Ironically, I started to relax. The unforeseen difficulty completely took my mind off of my nervousness. We would, I figured, at least have something to laugh about.

Long story short, we were finally able to connect. Because of the delay, we didn’t have as much time as planned, so Ms. Owens generously offered to continue the next day.

I’m actually glad we weren’t able to connect as scheduled; splitting the interview over two days gave this inexperienced question-asker time to review what I had from the first day.

In that review, I realized Ms. Owens’ answers to my questions, though certainly good stuff, hadn’t been in the somewhat informal, discussion-like tone I’d hoped for. I spent the evening pondering why and figuring out how to address that the next day. As a result, I learned some valuable lessons about interviewing someone you don’t know.

That first day, this is how I asked my questions: “What do you think is the role of the artist in society?”

Let us all take a moment to step back and admire the fact that I didn’t realize I’d get a formal answer to that.

Having identified the problem, I didn’t recognize the cause right away. So I thought back to my interview with my brother. And I thought about some interviews that I had enjoyed listening to. Here’s what I realized: the more candid interviews are the ones in which the interviewers themselves are candid. This was unconscious with my brother; we’ve known each other my whole life. It was easy to start with, “Do you remember…” and launch into a question from there. In the case of the interviews I had listened to between other people, similar things occurred; the interviewer tended to lead with something personal before coming to the actual question.

I think when you do that, a few different things are happening. Most practically, you’re setting the tone. Any time you talk with another person, your tone affects theirs, and vice versa. When one person raises their voice in anger, the other usually follows. That first day, I had led with formality.

On Day Two, I asked my questions like this:

You have a great lyric that reminds me of my own experience as a poet; I wrote in a blog once that “as much as a person may be moved by someone else’s creation, its creator is privileged to be moved by it first,” and in your song Don’t Waste Your Life, you say “When I forget what I’ve been given, I can always find a lesson in these lines.” I think we’re coming at the same idea from opposite angles, but it’s the same basic concept of learning from our own work and how God speaks to us through that. I was wondering if you’d like to expound on that; perhaps give an example?

This simple change in question-asking tactics had more than one benefit. Yes, the tone shifted, as desired, but the interview also became more of a conversation. I was able to be more responsive to what Ms. Owens was saying, and I asked a couple of unplanned follow-up questions as we talked. Finally, I learned an important lesson, not only about interviewing strangers, but also about relationships in general:

If you want to hear from somebody else’s heart, you need to share a little of yours.


  1. What great insight! So glad God worked it out that your interview was split so you could ponder what you could change for the second half to make it more informal.

  2. "If you want to hear from somebody else’s heart, you need to share a little of yours." - That might just be my new motto!!! It is so perfect!

    1. Oh, thanks Ed. That's awfully nice of you. :)