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Kentucky by Heart: There is an art to a good interview; sharing tips learned along the way

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

If I may indulge a bit of your time and interest this week, please allow me to share a few items I have learned about effectively interviewing people for my niche genre. I strongly believe each of us has our own compelling stories to tell, and often, if told in a public way, they can be to the benefit of others.

That belief is the foundation of the type of writing I do, that of looking for the best in our state and particularly its people. You might call it being a positive messenger or something akin to it.

Steve surrounded by individuals he interviewed for the fifth volume of Ky’s Everyday Heroes (Photo credit Ernie Stamper)

Having interviewed hundreds of individuals for feature articles or for my books, I have often gained more response information than for what I requested. It is perhaps the trust factor I foster, or possibly it is effective questions or follow-up questions I ask.

Many hours — likely thousands of hours—of talking individually with persons about their life activities and dreams now rest solidly on my resume. At this point in my career as a non-fiction writer, I feel comfortable chronicling stories of admirable Kentuckians. It took a while to get to this point. Looking back, I will admit I was a mediocre interviewer when I started a couple of decades ago.

I tape the interviews so that I can maintain eye contact, and the transcribing, which can take a lot of time, comes later—but not too long afterward. An expert once gave me the advice to not let a story “go cold.”

There is an art to the practice of interviewing, but it starts with demonstrating a keen interest and respect for the interviewee. With them being the subject of the story, I first try to express my special interest, and that I would like to learn more about them so that others can learn of them also. Before setting a time for the interview, I usually explain in general terms what I hope to find out about them, and about how long we will talk. With those parameters established, it helps us to pace ourselves and figure out how to get to the key information gathering without wasting valuable time. Think partnership because that is what it is.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

If I simply am looking for a few quotes of enrichment from others who know the person I am profiling, often via an email or text, or a quick phone call, I focus on two things. First, I will be specific about what I would like to know. I let them know also what the deadline is—before they ask when needed, as they often do. I encourage them to be brief in response; that usually relieves pressure they might feel. Most, I find, reply with information to spare!

But back to the in-person “sit down” interview with my main subject, which I much prefer to phone or even Zoom meetings. Since I am most interested in the “hows” and “whys” emanating from the person and their story, it’s best to find out all the basic information before the interview. Things like age, birthplace, educational history, and accomplishments are often available without waiting until the interview. Knowing those things beforehand tends, I believe, to help the time together be more fruitful.

The interviewee should do most of the talking, not the interviewer. Years ago, I discovered, after listening to many of my taped recordings, that I talked too much; it was obvious and disheartening. It is now apparent I was given lots of grace in the matter, but I realized things had to change. It became simple at that point… ask good questions, then trust the interviewee to answer them—only interrupting for clarification or to express gratitude. And not only did my professional quality improve, but it also helped improve my interpersonal relationships.

It seems to me that individuals see us as noted as winsome conversationalists when we focus on affirming people we meet. People like to talk about themselves, especially to good listeners. And after listening to the interview on tape and needing clarification on things said, I can make follow-up contact with the subject. That will further build trust as I demonstrate a desire to portray their thoughts correctly.

That said, more aggressive tactics will likely be needed in other kinds of stories, ie. the exposing of less than admirable acts, as in pure journalistic reporting. In those cases, there is less incentive to talk. But for the reporting I do, I have already established, with quality evidence, that the person has been a positive force in their community and even beyond. Getting the story out to inspire others is the goal.

Good luck and feel free to ask questions or comment by emailing me at sflairty2001@yahoo.com.

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