by John Brady, Author - "The Craft of Interviewing"
From Brady's "The Craft of Interviewing," published in August 1977.
The interview outline may take two shapes: one, like a funnel; the other, like an inverted funnel.
The funnel-shape interview begins with generalities - "What are the benefits of nuclear warfare, Mr. President?" - then pins down the generalizations - "When and where has it produced those spectacular sunsets that you mention?" It appeals to the thoughtful, creative interviewee, because it allows him some say in the direction of the interview. Freelancer Edward Linn opens each topic with a broad question "so that the subject can take it in any direction he wants. If you make each question too specific, too direct, too narrow, you run the risk, I think, of ending up with an article that reflects your own preconceptions; an article that you have written in large measure before you leave home. If the guy I'm interviewing takes that opening question and goes off in a direction that never occurred to me, I figure I'm way ahead; I'm finding out what interests him most, rather than what interests me."
The wide-open question not only gives the interviewee room to breathe; it gives the interviewer room to grapple. Alex Haley says he's interested in abstract questions because "I value being able to go to the subject almost ignorant of him. Then, I have a feeling I represent more nearly Mr. Average Reader who doesn't know much about this person. I want to meet him, form an impression of him - which I hope will be fair, honest and accurate - and try to communicate this to the reader. I have never known anybody beforehand."
Sherlock Holmes would have been fond of the inverted funnel interview; it opens with hard, fast, specific questions, then ascends to more general ground. It's effective for interviewing that frankest and most baffling subject - the child. He may be stymied by a wide, world-weary question like, "Are you ambitious?" unless the ground is broken by specific questions like "Do you make straight A's in school?"
"A child may not be able to say, 'I dislike the authoritarian personality,"' says one veteran child interviewer, "but if asked which teachers he likes and which he dislikes, he will be able to say."
The inverted-funnel technique makes getting answers from a former IRS agent as easy as taking candy from a baby, as Max Gunther found one wintry day in New York.
"When I walked into that interview, I wanted that ex-agent to tell me everything interesting that had ever happened to him in his tax-collecting job," recalls Gunther. "But how could I get him started? I could have asked a vague, general question: 'Has anything exciting ever happened to you in your IRS job?' But I didn't. It was too broad."
Instead, Gunther asked the agent to itemize: "When you were auditing people's tax returns, did anybody ever try to bribe you?"
"That question wound him up - in fact, very nearly overwound him," recalls Gunther. They talked for four hours. "I barely asked another question the whole time, and I came out of the interview with a wealth of fascinating material about the inner workings of the IRS. My broad question - Did anything exciting ever happen? - had been fully answered without my asking it."
How do you know whether to bet on a funnel or an inverted-funnel interview? Generally, if your subject is at home with words and ideas, lead him out with an open, general question. If he is ill at ease, make him comfortable with a question about the concrete, the easily explained.