Terry Gross and Michael Barbaro share interview tips and techniques

A good interviewer prepares well, never forgets to ask “why,” and carefully listens — for tone, for key words or phrases, for follow-up questions. 

Those were among the takeaways from a conversation between Terry Gross, host and executive producer of NPR’s Fresh Air, and Michael Barbaro, host of The New York Times’ podcast The Daily.

Barbaro and Gross shared their interviewing insights Friday during a National Press Club Journalism Institute video event moderated by Marketplace Correspondent Kimberly Adams.

Among their main points:

On being succinct

Gross:  Sometimes I have a rambling question because I haven’t fully formulated what the question is, because I’m responding to something that they said, and I know that there’s a kernel I want to get to I’m just not sure what it is yet.  I’ll just kind of start talking because it’s my turn and kind of wait for the thought to crystallize, and in radio, dead air is really a scary thing.

Barbaro: Sometimes the shortest questions in the world are the most valuable in the moment: Why? What were you thinking? … The one almost markedly common question on The Daily is,.  “What does that mean, what did it mean in the moment?”

Gross: I’ll take a key word that somebody has said, or phrase, and I’ll say, “You said this, what do you mean by that?” Because it’s a way of getting deeper into what they just said. Often the way of getting deeper is to go back to what somebody said and basically say, take it to the next step.

Interviewing for a radio show or podcast like Fresh Air or The Daily

Gross: Sometimes I’ll say, “Those answers are too long, we won’t be able to fit it into our format.” And it’s also sometimes my way of saying those answers are confusing — maybe if you made them shorter, we’ll more easily hear what the point is. And I try to do it as nicely and as gently and as calming as possible, not in an insulting way. But I do sometimes step in and say, “It needs to be shorter,” or, “Forgive me, my [question] must have been confusing so let me restate.” 

Barbaro: Some of our [New York Times] colleagues would come on the show and tell stories the way journalists do, the inverted pyramid. The big news on top, and the supporting information and just kind of get it all out at once. And we would joke that sometimes people would come on the show and vomit out the whole story. We’d say, “You know we have 25 minutes to fill here, and we’d like to tell this with some drama and some suspense and chronology. So, let’s try it a little more slowly.”

Long-distance vs in-person interviews

Gross: Most of my interviews are long-distance interviews. … We both have to listen really intently because there’s no body language … there are no other cues. But the advantage to having that is I can take notes, I can look at notes, I can page through a book to get a quote that I want without feeling that I’m losing eye contact.

Barbaro: In-person interviews are somewhat terrifying at times. But I find them very liberating because there is no distraction, other than the guest, the person you’re talking to. … And I do like the body language a lot, and I like the spontaneity of that.

Time spent on research

Gross:  I have my own form of plowing through a book kind of quickly, circling everything I want to remember, dog-earing each of those pages and taking notes on everything I’ve dog-eared, and then using those notes as my memory bank from which to inspire my questions. So, you know, I’ll do that with the book. I’ll also have articles by or about the writer. 

Barbaro: Whenever people speak about interviewing, there’s a suspicion that hosts have this kind of  higher order of skill than anybody else when it comes to asking spontaneous questions. That might be true of some people — I’m going to guess it’s true of Terry. 

I know that when it comes to The Daily, it’s all about the preparation, it’s all about just how much labor and thinking goes into what the question needs to be, what a possible answer might look like, where do we want the conversation to go. We think a lot about and talk a lot about the kind of arc of the conversation. Where does it start, where does it go, and where may it end. And of course, sometimes you have to toss that all away — the conversation just goes someplace else. But I think the show reflects just how much rigor we put into that process.

Diversity of staff

Gross: We’re working on increasing the diversity on our staff right now both on air and off. So that’s a kind of work in progress for us. We do have two people of color on our team, and people of different generations on our team. That’s really helpful, because, as you know everybody brings their own point of view to it. Everybody’s reading different things and there’s things we share, but there are things that we don’t, and it’s really important to have all that input.

Barbaro: It’s a very unfinished piece of work at The New York Times, and in audio, and at The Daily. But we do have a diverse staff, we have a young staff, and we have a majority, a vast majority, women staff on our team. All those things profoundly affect the way that we tell stories. And you can tell from my appearance that I’m a white male. I bring to conversations some of the experiences and assumptions at times of that very fact. And so, the most important thing we do when we set out to do an interview is we bring in as many people as possible to the conversation. And that’s who the guest should be, how the structure of the interview ought to go, the kind of challenges we should pose to that guest, and of course sometimes whether we should even have a guest on.

Putting people at ease

Gross: Usually with guests — and this is a liberty I have because it’s recorded and edited —  before the interview starts, “I’ll say, let me know if I asked you anything too personal and we’ll move on to something else because I don’t want to push you beyond what you’re comfortable saying.” In a personal interview with writers and artists and performers I feel very comfortable doing that and it gives me the liberty to ask anything because they’ve been reassured that they have the right to push back and I’ll respect that. That doesn’t always go well. Sometimes there’s still friction, but it usually helps put everybody at ease.

Barbaro: When I think about making someone comfortable and that first question, I think about an interview we did with a man who owned a gun store and who sold a weapon that was used in a mass shooting, and he sold the gun used in the Virginia Tech shooting. … We chose to start that question with just an exceptionally straightforward inquiry which was, “Tell me about your store.” And we did that because we wanted to give him a chance to talk about how he got into the gun-selling industry. And I think it’s maybe a somewhat underutilized but very simple tactic of “tell me who you are, tell me how you got to the place where you somehow became a person intersecting with the news,” and that person will open up. He ended up feeling like he could talk to us, and it was not until midway into the interview that we asked a question that we had prepared very carefully, which was. “Tell me about the date … of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.” By which point we had started to have a conversation and he knew we weren’t there to pin him up against the wall. And I think that’s important.

Listening and distractions

Gross: When I was interviewing Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reforms, who is totally anti- tax, we were talking about the real- estate tax, which he calls the death tax. He said, “The death tax, it’s kind of like the Holocaust blah blah blah blah blah.” And I was distracted because I was thinking this interview isn’t going well; it’s boring. And I realized, “Oh, I think he said that the death tax is like the Holocaust. D, did he really say that?” And I didn’t know, so I had to say, ”I think you said that it’s like the Holocaust.” And so you have to really listen. Otherwise, you’re going to miss something really important or really awful that the guest has said. …

I feel like I have to listen on so many different levels at the same time, which adds to the distraction, too, because your mind is constantly calculating what’s working and what’s not, what to do next and what to say next.

Barbaro: The whole art of it is figuring out how to not get distracted. Terry’s right, the worst moments in an interview and the worst interviews are when you lose the thread of what the person you’re talking to has said. … The times that has happened have been painful or embarrassing to me because when you listen the next day, and you say to yourself, ‘Man, how did I not ask this follow up question?’ ……. I have developed some quirks that actually pre-existed my time as an audio host because I was a print reporter for a long time. When I was on the phone with anybody, I would do what you do when you want your listener, your interlocutor, the person on the other side of the phone call to feel listened to which is “Hmm-hmm, right.” And we’ve made the decision on The Daily to keep a lot of those in … that is good for the other person you’re talking to to know you’re listening, but it’s also a signal to the listeners of how you’re processing it because ultimately a great interview is a proxy for the listener. 

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Siobhan McHugh
Siobhan McHugh
1 year ago

Fab tips and tricks from two great interviewers, thank you! Re being a proxy for the listener, Michael, I like how you summarise what someone has just been telling you, then ask them have you got it right. It’s a risk, because you’ll look stupid if you got it wrong – but when the interviewee says ‘yes, that’s it exactly,’ it helps the content land with us as listeners – plus it makes your interviewee feel validated and sets the ground for further openness and disclosure. (And actually, not so risky, because in a non-live podcast, you can edit out… Read more »