#WriteHereWriteNow: How to make the most of direct speech

We love direct speech.

As writers, nothing brings life to our work more the actual words people say.

Quotes, dialogue, comment — whatever you call it. We need the words of others to add emotion, opinion and drama.

Just try reading a book by the journalist and author Jon Ronson.

The man behind The Psychopath Test and others has made a career out of using direct speech to optimum effect.

But quotes mean handling interviews and therein lies the issue: sometimes interviews go wrong.

Try this clip, for example. Unluckily for the Channel Four News presenter Krishna Guru-Murthy, this car-crash celebrity interview has since gone down in history.

Next step forward Rhys Ifans. The Ruthin-born actor became legendary for all the wrong reasons a few years ago after a magazine interview turned into a study in interview hell.

Handling interviews is not easy and a skill only acquired through practise over time. That, and making mistakes.

We’ll be discussing how we use direct speech and how to get the best out of our interviewees at the next #WriteHereWriteNow meeting at Storyhouse, Chester.

Share your experiences and join the conversation before the next meeting by posting below.

Over to you …

Liked this? Try also Can we learn to write better?

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  1. Helen says:

    There is a big difference between interviewing someone who wants to tell their story and someone who doesn’t. I think you can learn to write good speech but getting good content is tricky with a reluctant interviewee, as per your example. I also remember Parkinson’s interview with Meg Ryan; it was so obvious that appearing on a chat show was not where she wanted to be! Sometimes you get the best quotes when you put your pen down or turn off the recorder!

  2. Sarah-Jayne says:

    I’d be concerned about missing vital information if I didn’t have a recording device! At times, I can be busy scribbling down key notes but then miss the next point.
    I’m sure knowing shorthand would be useful in this situation! Or knowing how to summarise an interview effectively, in a way that’s easy to recall afterwards when putting a written piece together.

  3. Claire says:

    I agree 100%with Helen on this. Interviewing someone who actually wants to discuss things is a massive advantage. As a media student I had horrendous experiences interviewing people who either froze as soon as a microphone was placed in front of them, or just didn’t want to be there. I also believe that if you have the time, preparation and research is vital. I’ve recently interviewed a poet who commented that it was nice that I’d actually read their work before speaking to them. The last person who interviewed them hadn’t, and it apparently became obvious during the interview and subsequent write up.

  4. Ali says:

    I’m new to interviewing people and definitely want to learn more about how to do it well. I’m interested in how to get a good interview with a non-celebrity person, who isn’t experienced and PR trained – how to set it up and make them feel comfortable, then how to ask good questions that create interesting quotes. And as Sarah comments – how not to then miss these in my notes!! In terms of these celebrity examples, I’m a reader who prefers to hear an interview about the subject – the film or the book perhaps – rather than their personal life, so I empathise a bit with the celebrity walking out of these pointless questions – but I know there’s a lot of demand for this from the Journalists point of view.

  5. Paul Diggory says:

    Interesting examples! I thought there were two key factors in the Robert Downey interview: the interviewer didn’t strike me as having any real empathy with the DC / Marvel comic genre, but it started to go downhill after his question that assumed he’d become a better person and by implication that he didn’t used to be a good person. As Claire says, preparation and research is rewarded and based on that interview, a little respect doesn’t harm. I recall reading the Janice Turner / Rhys Ifans interview at the time – it’s far more entertains to the reader than a ‘successful’ celebrity interview would have been. I don’t think anyone could have rescued that interview. Grace Jones came up with the solution when she considered Russell Harty to have been rude to her on TV!

    I don’t have much experience of interviewing others, apart from recruitment situations. I have received very good training on handling interviews which included sessions with a former R4 Today programme presenter who’d interviewed Thatcher, Reagan, etc. It was scary the way he manipulated me through his questions and observations such that it became almost impossible to achieve the outcome I wanted. To secure a good interview with your subject I would think being genuinely interested is important as it’s quite seductive. With that in mind I’d prefer to record a session. This allows you to focus your attention on the subject and not just to listen but understand – I think that’s difficult when you’re trying to capture what’s already been said in a pad. It must also be helpful to identify flaws in your interviewing style so you can improve.

  6. Vicki Robinson says:

    I did some interviews a few years ago which generally went well. I found doing the early part of the interview by email helpful as it helped the interviewee to relax by giving them thinking space. My biggest challenge was someone with an agenda who tried to take over the conversation. He’d basically written the piece in his head and expected to dictate it to me! I got round it with some clever editing…

  7. Conor says:

    Very interesting and insightful comments above!

    I think you can pick up a lot of added context to an article/story from an interview. That said, I have only done one article on the basis of an interview in recent years and I used quotes from the interviewee, and worked in quotes from colleagues also.

    See http://www.chesterbutcher.com/images/SportingShooterOctober2015.pdf

    I would not be comfortable using a recording device for an interview. I think that would be a barrier to effective communication. On the other hand in my day to day job I tend to write quotes for colleagues, which colleagues then approve, as this is a more effective use of time in keeping quotes relevant and concise and especially when up against tight deadlines.

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