One of my interviewing tips drew some criticism from veteran journalist and teacher Charlie Meyerson.
Charlie, news chief at Rivet News Radio, and I disagree a bit about whether using “uh-huh” in interviews is good or bad.
Here’s what I said in Thursday’s post, an updated version of an old handout for a workshop on interviewing:
Uh-huh. Move the interview along with responsive questions and statements that basically tell the character to keep talking: ‘Uh-huh.’ ‘Really?’ ‘What happened next?’ ‘How did you react?’
I think I was using “uh-huh” and other short verbal cues to keep talking back in the 1980s (or possibly 1970s), long before I first connected with Don Fry, one of the best writing coaches in journalism. But Don says, “The most powerful interview technique is nodding your head and saying, ‘Uh-huh.'” So, if I didn’t learn the technique from Don, he at least reinforced my belief that it’s an effective way to keep someone talking in an interview.
But Charlie has a lot more radio experience than Don or I have, and he sent me this note, disagreeing with my advice:
‘Uh-huh’ is a bad habit I’m still trying to kill among my students and staff. It ruins a lot of audio and video (makes excerpts unusable — a bad thing in this era when multimedia is an invaluable asset for digital journalism). It also makes the reporter seem sympathetic to an interviewee, compromising a sense of objectivity. My counsel: Ask good questions and get the hell out of the way, nodding (silently!) once in a while if needed to encourage someone to keep going.
Charlie sent along a link to his guide to interview techniques, which I heartily endorse. But I wasn’t going to give up right away on “uh-huh.” My response (Charlie got to the point more succinctly than I did):
I think an important exercise for young journalists is to listen to themselves on recorded interviews. That cures (or helps cure) not just overuse of “uh-huh,” but the even worse “you know,” “like” and “so …”
Surely “uh-huh” can be overused, but I think a short response that in essence says “keep talking; I’m listening” is an effective part of an interview. It doesn’t ruin the audio, because you’re often going to be editing the audio anyway (and sometimes you’re not recording). And if you let the audio run at length without editing, you’re bound to have some conversational “uh-huhs” (or other imperfect speech) from the person you’re interviewing, so an “uh-huh” from the reporter won’t hurt anything.
On a telephone interview, the silent nod never works, and you need a short response, when someone is on a roll, so they know you’re listening on the other end. But I think you also need a short vocal response now and then when someone is on a roll in a face-to-face interview.
I completely disagree that “uh-huh” conveys sympathy or compromises objectivity. “Uh-huh” doesn’t say anything more than an acknowledgment that I heard you. And I don’t worry about compromising objectivity because I think it’s a myth anyway. My tough questions convey that I’m here to do a story that’s not necessarily the story they want me to tell. That’s not going to be undercut by a vague “uh-huh” that merely acknowledges hearing what the person just said.
While I disagree in part, I appreciate your sharing your viewpoint with me (and admit that it’s good advice in at least some situations), and I’d be happy to share this exchange on the blog.
For what it’s worth, Don’s post praising “uh-huh” as an effective interviewing technique actually sides with Charlie on the point of whether “uh-huh” conveys agreement or acknowledgement:
Everybody knows that the best interviews become conversations, and that’s true. But it’s a peculiar kind of conversation. It’s one-sided, with one person doing most of the talking, and the other steering. And subjects are anxious about what you’ll do with the information.
So you need to build an atmosphere of trust, where the subject feels free to tell you things. You have to disarm their worries, avoid any sense of manipulation, and friendly things up.
So you nod your head and say “Uh-huh” a lot. What’s the effect? Subjects interpret nodding and “Uh-huh” as agreement with what they’re saying, and tell you more. Since you seem so agreeable, they keep talking. And you keep writing down what they’re saying, so they feel important and tell you more.
I should note that if Don’s right, the silent nod that Charlie advocates is as much a part of this sign of agreement as the “uh-huh.” But I think they’re both wrong. I think of how many times in arguments, I’ve stated my case while my adversary nodded and said, “uh-huh,” then the person ripped into me, tearing apart all those arguments she just nodded at (or attempting to).
I sent a draft of this post to Don, who responded:
Thanks for consulting me about interview tactics. I generally agree with your advice. My ‘uh-huh’ technique is for print only, as I said late in the post: ‘N.B. These principles apply to print interviews; television has a different, tenser dynamic.’ I should have added radio as excluded.
I also use other interview prompts to reassure the subject and keep him/her talking: ‘hmm’ and ‘hmmmmm’ and ‘um’ and ‘yessss?’ Depending on context, I also use ‘really?’ and ‘wow’ and ‘wait, wait, tell me that again.’ In telephone interviews, I use more prompts because I don’t have visual cues available. But nodding and ‘uh-huh’ work best for me, as a writer and especially as a coach. One caveat: I don’t fake interest; I’m really interested in what the subject says.
In agreeing to let me share our exchange on the blog, Charlie elaborated on his points:
As someone whose career has been split evenly among print, radio and online gigs (and whose present startup bridges all those fields), I assure you that editing out ‘uh-huhs’ is inefficient and often results in bad listening. You’re right, ‘uh-huh’ is harmless for those not recording, or not recording for broadcast. But given the multimedia realities of our era — and the growing value of audio for so many applications — why not aspire to create good sound that won’t require (much) editing?
I don’t have nearly Charlie’s experience in audio, so I’ll yield to his authority on that question and suggest a less grunt-like verbal cue to keep someone talking in recorded interviews. But keep it short. I know “uh-huh” does not sound as bad in recording as long, filibuster-style questions and statements.
I’m fine with adapting interview techniques to the situation. In fact, you must. An interview in a person’s home differs from an interview in the person’s car or office or at a restaurant or city council meeting. You adjust your technique to each of those situations, and I think it’s fine to adjust techniques such as verbal cues, depending on whether you’re recording.
So if you’re not recording an interview:
- Why not? Don’t you want good video and/or audio clips to go with this story?
- If you truly shouldn’t be recording (perhaps the source doesn’t want to), go ahead and use “uh-huh” as a short verbal cue to keep the person talking.
Another post on interviewing techniques
Christoph Trappe, one of the veteran journalists I quoted last week with interviewing advice, has posted more advice:
Other posts with interviewing tips
I deal with interviewing in several other blog posts:
My 2002 interview with Mikhail Gorbachev (in which I discuss techniques for interviewing through an interpreter)
Resources to help with interviewing
These are resources from more than 10 years ago, when I developed this handout (I had to cut several that are no longer online). Do you have (or know of) some other resources on interviewing (especially newer ones, that might deal more with digital technology than I have here)?
Charlie Meyerson’s A guide to interview techniques for broadcast, print and other media
“Dr. Ink’s” Shut Up and Listen (I named mine first)
Chip Scanlan’s First Rule of Interviewing: Be Human
Chip Scanlan’s Redeeming Your Interviews
Bob Steele’s Handle with Care: The Victim’s Perspective
Bob Steele’s Crisis Reporting and Respectful Interviewing