The secret of the perfect interview: Mike Wallace’s Chemistry of Confidentiality

Mike Wallace was a long-serving, multi-award-winning journalist reporting on the CBS program, 60 Minutes. Recently CBS aired Jeff Fager looks back on 50 years of “60 Minutes”, which contained a memorable moment from Wallace where he really hit the nail on the head about how to get the perfect interview. His secret was what he called “the chemistry of confidentiality” – and it is genius. Her’s how it works.

All images sourced from CBS News - 60 Minutes

How to get interviewees to bare their souls

60 Minutes first aired in Sept. 1968, and was differentiated from other news programs by its style of reporter-centred investigations. It is still going in this format almost fifty years later, and the list of reporters on the programme reads like the who’s who of senior and respected American TV reporters. Mike Wallace (May 9, 1918 – April 7, 2012) in particular interviewed and teased all sorts of interesting admissions from the most important and touchy people in the world – presidents, politicians, artists, actors, celebrities, you name them. It’s estimated that Wallace did over 800 reports involving literally thousands of interviews. Wallace had just the right method to get his interviewees to open up and talk and bare their souls.

Some critics say that Wallace was more a showman and TV host than a proper journalist, one in particular commenting that he “…didn’t join the show until he was 50 years old and on his third wife—[which was] was a little more than a desperate and sustained attempt at achieving celebrity. Not journalistic celebrity, or reportorial renown, but the sort of tawdry, famous-for-being-famous notoriety currently reserved for cable reality show cast members.” Ouch. But, that point of view notwithstanding, he definitely delivered deep and revealing interviews.

There are lessons in this for all journalists, reporters (which is what Wallace called himself), PR people, marketers, writers and bloggers.

Mike Wallace explains the chemistry of confidentiality

Mike Wallace: “With good research you could embarrass anybody, make anybody squirm. You could do it to me. But if you are really after illumination of an interviewee’s character — qualities, substance, texture — if you’re really after that, you can ask very pointed [deep sigh] questions. Questions — sensible questions to get them to talk. You can establish, what you do so well, a chemistry of confidentiality. […] And why? Because you’re two people who know a little bit about the same subject. If the interviewee has respect for the interviewer and feels that the interviewer knows a good deal and is well prepared, you can ask anything and you’ll find that the interviewee will be a co-conspirator with you.”

Charlie Rose: “Totally agree. And because most people want to explain themselves. There is — they just want to do it in a place where they feel like the person genuinely wants to know, and you have created this chemistry of confidentiality, and a sense that no matter how hard it is or how soft it is or how probing it is, they want to know. And I’m comfortable within that context. (crosstalk)” (Retrieved from Charlie Rose, 2017-11-30)

So – the lessons are:

  1. Do your research;
  2. Prepare your questions;
  3. Establish a chemistry of confidentiality by letting the interviewee know that you know what they know about the subject and that you have prepared;
  4. Make sure that the interviewee feels as if you really want to hear what they try to explain.

Apart from questioning skills, you also need to be a good listener. And it helps to be personable, good-looking and have a velvety voice – like Mike Wallace.

Like a lawyer preparing for a court case, you should not ask an interviewee about something which you yourself know nothing about. You should already know many of the answers before you even ask the questions. The journalist should know as much or more about the subject as the interviewee. The purpose of an interview is to find out the non-obvious, unspoken stuff, not to get the interviewee to teach you what they know by stating the obvious.

Example

So let’s say you are going to interview a client about a project your company has done, for producing a case study or project profile. You need to know all about the project, as well as all about the client, beforehand, and have a pretty good idea what the client would say about specific problems or achievements. Then you can dig in and ask the client all the hard questions, and you will get answers – usually much more comprehensive and interesting answers.
And clients – mine owners, operators and consultants – the reverse is true for you. Understand what it is the clued-up interviewer is trying to get out of you, and why, and how.

That is why I used to passionately hate it when other people chopped and changed the wording of the expert interviews, articles and project descriptions I had obtained. They were messing with the chemistry of confidentiality I had established with my sources.


Cartoons of Mike Wallace

And to put it in other words

Wallace also explained this concept in a group interview with other CBS 60 minutes reporters, transcribed in an article Saying Farewell to the Extraordinary Mike Wallace (rtrvd. 2017-11-30)

“Steve Kroft: Never felt scared?

Mike Wallace: Pshaw. I’m a pro. What happens is you try to establish, or I do, a kind of chemistry of confidentiality.

Steve Kroft: Even though there are cameras running?

Mike Wallace: Yeah. And you can. After a while the interviewee is so persuaded that you’ve done a lot of work and that you know a lot about him or her, and he says, “Look, I’m here. I’m gonna be asked some questions so why don’t we look at each other and talk to each other.” And that– and all of a sudden you can see, they forget the cameras, they forget the lights and they begin to answer accurately and in a strange way, comfortably.”

Hi-res, full-length interview here:
https://charlierose.com/video/player/14400

Source: The transcript extract from the interview, above, is from a tribute to Wallace, called “Remembering Mike Wallace” which originally aired on CBS on April 15, 2012, and was subsequently mentioned in Jeff Fager looks back on 50 years of “60 Minutes”, aired on Charlie Rose this month.

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