Tips on interviewing from Audie Cornish

photo by Stephen Voss, NPRAs co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, Audie Cornish conducts interviews that are most often edited before they air. The goal, she says, is “a targeted conversation that’s supposed to unfold seemingly naturally over the course of several minutes.

“The nirvana is authenticity. You know? Like a real connection between two people that’s on tape,” Cornish told Jesse Thorn, host of the new podcast The Turnaround.

Before she begins recording, Cornish shares what she calls the interviewees’ “Miranda rights.” She explains that only about a third of what they say will be used and asks them to keep their answers “comfortably short.” She also tells people they can stop and restart if they don’t like the way their answer is going.

Not everyone can tell a story. If you think about how many times you’ve hung out with a friend and they’re telling a story and it takes, like, these kind of detours and turns and you’re kind of like, “Oy, get to the point.” Not everyone actually can tell their story and so what you’re trying to do then is actually help them convey the information with a beginning, middle, and end.

“I will re-ask questions for clarity or for content,” she tells guests, “and I’ll always tell you which I’m looking for.”

Cornish does a lot of preparation for every interview. “I often write my questions in advance wherever possible. I rewrite and noodle around with the language even though I know for fact I won’t necessarily read it word for word. And I always have more questions than I need.”

Even so, Cornish says she often interjects a very open-ended question: “What haven’t I asked that I should have? What’s something you wish people would ask you that they never do?”

What makes an interview successful? That moment when people surprise you, she says,

It’s like fireworks, you know? There’s a lot of planning that goes into fireworks. Even though what you see in the end looks kind of beautiful and chaotic and surprising.

Cornish’s guiding principle in any interview is a simple one. “It’s not about me. That’s like 90 percent of what’s guiding my work. It is not about me. It’s about whoever is in front of me: what they’re trying to say, what that means, what’s at stake for all the rest of us and hearing them talk.”

Thanks to CJR for sponsoring The Turnaround and providing a partial transcript.