What do you do when your interview subject is four times older than you and has written more books than you can count?
I struggled with this last week when I was working on a complex article that required days of research before I even felt confident enough to set up my first interviews. I was determined not ask ignorant questions that would waste my sources’ time. But last week, when I finally picked up the phone to talk to experts, I encountered the opposite problem: I struggled to vanquish what I’ll call the “overinformed question.”
Al Tompkins diagnosed my problem in a 2011 analysis of an interview with Obama:
Less confident interviewers have a habit of asking long-winded questions to make themselves look informed and commanding.
(I recommend Tompkins’ entire article; it’s a fascinating breakdown of a single interview: Which questions work, and why?)
My interviewees were gracious enough to respond more fluently than the questions deserved. And I learned, again, that interviewing is mostly about keeping my mouth shut. A simple, solid question is a bridge into silence that the other person can fill.