Please just answer the question

I went to a session of the Khmer Rouge trial in Cambodia in early February. 

Surprisingly, I had a moment of kinship with the prosecutor. 

Who knew prosecutors and radio makers shared similarities! 

Regardless of what the prosecutor did, he couldn’t get the witness to answer his questions. The witness kept giving long winded responses that had nothing to do with the questions.

Getting people to answer my questions is something I also struggle with.

A few years ago I was interviewing a woman who regardless of what I did, she wouldn’t answer my questions.  

So I ended up doing nothing. I sat through her monologue and then eventually I deleted the tape (even with time, when I re-looked at the tape, it didn’t get any better).

The interviewee just couldn’t break away from her narrative. She was restricted to the stories she’d probably already rehearsed and imagined herself telling to me. The interview she wanted to have.

When people respond to you like this, you’re unlikely to get good tape.

These type of answers go against what makes good tape.

The essence of what makes good tape is summed up perfectly in the fun book, The Chairs are Where the People Go:

Good tape comes from the interview delving into the unexpected. The interviewee shares ideas and thoughts that they're articulating in the interview for the first time.

So how do you get people to answer your questions?
1.    Give them time
If you're interviewing someone who can't answer your questions, chances are, you're going to know this straight away because they won’t even be able to answer your first question.

So, if this happens, wait. It's important to be patient and give them the time to monologue and say everything they want to say.

It was at least 20 minutes of the prosecutor in Cambodia asking questions of the witness before he interrupted them.

2.    Then be direct
After giving the person plenty of time to get everything they want to say out, directly ask them to answer your questions. And don't forget to explain why you need them to do this.

The prosecutor in Cambodia handled this quite nicely.

Firstly, he was apologetic.

Then he explained why he needed the witness to do this and he even told him how to do answer the questions (step by step).

When this didn’t work, even the presiding judge was forced to interrupt (how I’d like a judge to sit in an interrupt my interviews when I’m having trouble!).

3.    Introduce a new source (pre-interview preparation is required for this one)
If the person still isn’t answering your questions, it’s time to change tact and try something different like reading them back a quote that they’ve said e.g. “You once said …” and then ask them to elaborate on it. 

In the court case, the prosecutor tried to get the witness to respond differently to his questions by reading him some of pre-trial testimony he’d already given.

 I won’t go any further (if you want to read more of the harrowing testimonies go to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia website). 

If you can’t find quotes from the person you’re interviewing in the media (which will probably be true for most folk we interview) have a look at the kind of things they broadcast on their website, social media accounts or even ask one of their friends about something they’re renowned for saying and read it to them and ask them about it.

4.    Rephrase your question

Keep asking the same question in different ways until you get the answer you’re looking for and stop nodding when they don't answer the question. 

5.    Change the setting
Something they can't do in court but we're free to do, is change the interview setting.

Get up out of the interview chair and go for a walk with the person or get them to show you something they’ve been talking about. 

The added stimulation of walking or moving to a new location will hopefully distract them and knock them off their narrative track. 


Even by doing all those things you still might not get the person to answer your questions. It happens, even to prosecutors. And don't be afraid to bin an interview. 

Do you have any tips for getting people to answer your questions? 

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