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The art of interviewing: Drawing inspiration from Oprah

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On the evening of Sunday, March 7, I, along with 17 million other people, tuned in to watch Oprah’s interview of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. I am the first to admit that I wanted to hear all the details about their decision to step back as “senior” members of the Royal Family, but as an investigator, I also was also interested in how Oprah approached the interview – how she asked her questions, what she asked, and how Harry and Meghan would respond.

As investigators, we do not have an audience of millions hanging on our every question as Oprah did, but we do gather most of our evidence through interviews. Effective interviewing skills are therefore essential to the investigation process. Here are some tips we took away from the master interviewer herself:

1. Be Prepared

Like a good interviewer, Oprah was prepared. She knew the history of the Royal Family and was able to readily draw from that during the interview. Oprah knew the topics she wanted to ask about, but rather than sticking to a list of questions, she listened to what Harry and Meghan had to say and then asked follow-up questions. Similarly, an investigator must prepare well for an interview. An investigator should review all of the relevant evidence available to them in advance of the interview and know what they want to ask. Advance preparation allows the investigator to probe when information they hear does not accord with the evidence they had previously gathered. Be cautious when preparing a list of questions — asking them and not deviating from that list could result in the investigator missing out on valuable information

2. Go Slow

Oprah did not rush Harry and Meghan when they paused. She gave them time and space to answer. She did not interrupt them and allowed them to finish their thoughts. As investigators, we have to fight the urge to rush in, jump to the next question, or assume. Silence is a wonderful investigative tool — an investigator must be comfortable with allowing there to be silence and allowing the interviewee to fill it if they so choose. This is especially true in the era of video conference interviews, when it is harder to judge whose turn it is to speak and “talking over” others can frequently happen.

3. Be Thorough and Follow-up

Investigators have to be thorough, and Oprah certainly was. We watched as she masterfully probed for information, circling a subject in a manner to elicit the answers to the questions we did not know we had. For example, she asked Meghan a number of different questions about rumours about a “rift” between her and the Duchess of Cambridge, where it was reported that Meghan had left the Duchess in tears. In the following exchange, notice how she picked up on the language that Meghan used (the “narrative with Kate”) and then kept asking follow-up questions, even when met with a “No” or a non-response from Meghan:

Meghan: The narrative with Kate — which didn’t happen — was really, really difficult and something that  . . . I think that’s when everything changed, really.

Oprah: You say the narrative with Kate, it didn’t happen. So, specifically, did you make Kate cry?

Meghan: No.

Oprah: So, where did that come from?

Meghan: (Sighs)

Oprah: Was there a situation where she might have cried? Or she could have cried?

Meghan: No, no. The reverse happened. And I don’t say that to be disparaging to anyone, because it was a really hard week of the wedding. And she was upset about something, but she owned it, and she apologized. And she brought me flowers and a note, apologizing. And she did what I would do if I knew that I hurt someone, right, to just take accountability for it.

Similarly, as investigators we may have to ask questions in a number of different ways about the same subject matter, either because an interviewee is reluctant to provide an answer, or does not understand the question. Where your interviewee answers your questions with vague language (as Meghan arguably did with the “narrative with Kate” language), do not be afraid to ask the obvious follow-up question or ask them to explain what they meant.

Ultimately, there are some obvious ways that our interviews as investigators differ from the celebrity television interview — we have different mandates and purposes. We also do not have the luxury of building a rapport with the subjects of our interviews over the course of years, social events, and text messages as Oprah had with Harry and Meghan, or exclaiming “What?” as Oprah did, when a big reveal happens. We have only a meeting or two to gather the information in a fair and neutral way. We cannot edit together only the most salacious pieces of evidence. We have to analyze the information we receive and produce a report that is thoughtful, clear, and fair. That being said, Oprah’s preparation, pace, thoroughness, and attention to her interview subjects is something that we can all draw inspiration from for our next big interview.

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