Back in 2020, when the world was shut down and we were reduced to communicating with our loved ones through Zoom, I invited my dad onto my podcast. Shortly after, I started receiving messages from listeners who decided to interview their own dads. Here’s one of them:
"I just listened to your podcast with your dad and became motivated enough to interview both [parents] individually. Wow. Afterward, I felt such a weight lifted from my chest! They told me old stories I've heard a hundred times before as well as tokens about them I'd never known. We connected and opened up to each other in ways we never had before. It was amazing. These recordings have become my most valuable possessions. If anything happens to my parents during these uncertain times, I know I would regret not having those interviews."
In this post, I'm going to offer interview techniques for those of you who want to play journalist and conduct an interview with Pops. Make no mistake, this interview will require bravery. It forces you to face the white skull of death and to recognize that your dad isn't going to be around forever—and to grapple with the notion that long after he's gone, the recording of your interview will remain. Unlike edited video interviews, which present us humans in filtered soundbites, longform audio reveals their contradictions, verbal tics and run-on sentences—all the stuff that makes us who we are.
Often during an interview, a theme will emerge, and you should allow yourself to just let that happen. As my dad told stories from various periods of his life, it became clear that many of his decisions were tied to his belief that if he approached situations with generosity, the benefits would come back to him in spades. When you do it right, an interview can be a gift to your subject; it allows them to see the story of their life more clearly. So just remember that every dad has a great story. You just need to ask yours the right questions to unearth it.
The Art of the Question
First, write down every possible question you could ever think to ask your old man. What's his favorite color? Sport? Gardening tool? Mexican restaurant? Have him describe the moment he arrived at college, hit a home run, lost his virginity. Fill three notebook pages’ worth of shitty questions. Don't think too much about it, just keep the pen moving. When you finish, circle the questions that stand out to you. I've included a few sample questions at the bottom of this post to jump-start your imagination.
My relationship with a good question is almost sexual. I know that sounds weird, but I’m a weirdo, and like a perfect wave to a surfer, or a freshly-sharpened knife to a chef, a good question, to me, is a thing of beauty. My favorites are short, clean and potent. They look so innocent on the page, ruffling in the spring breeze. What could one line of six words accomplish? Not much, unless I look you in the eyes and ask:
Who are you pretending to be?
Answered with candor, that question leads to a world that few people know exists. Jim Carrey once said, "Everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about." All of which is to say that a good question is empathy in action. It makes your subject feel seen and if they trust you enough to share their internal battle, together, you will walk through a doorway that leads to a sacred place. Interviewing is addictive. There are countless stories within each of us to be told.
Asking a question like the one above at the beginning of the interview is like asking for clam stew, because your dad will most likely clam up … and stew! (Sorry, dad joke.) Ease into those atomic bomb questions—or don't ask them at all. Your interview doesn't need to be a therapy session. In fact, some of the best podcasts I've ever recorded have been with guests who told a few good stories, with zero personal reflection, then walked away. Stories make for great audio and it's essential that the beginning of the interview puts your dad at ease.
I like to dive into interviews by asking my guest to tell a story about a specific, positive moment in their life. When someone recounts a story, it puts a smile on their face and allows me to take the conversation into deeper waters. The purpose of the first question is to get your dad talking, so ask about a subject that makes him comfortable. If your dad loves to fish, ask him to tell you the story of the biggest salmon he ever caught.
My dad works in film. When he was a kid, he made money doing magic shows. To this day, he still walks around with gag tricks in his pocket. Once, he filmed an interview with Muhammad Ali, and before he started shooting, my dad pulled out a little mirror from his pocket and asked Ali to check himself out to make sure he looked OK. When Ali held the mirror to his face, the gag mirror started laughing at him. The room froze. Ali, who already had Parkinson's disease, held the mirror in his shaking hand, then began to laugh. My dad ended up giving him the mirror and Ali spent the rest of the day holding it up to other people’s faces, laughing. When I interviewed my dad, I began by asking him to tell me the story of Muhammad Ali and the mirror.
The follow-up question is just as important as the opener. Often, it can be as simple as asking, "What was that like?" or, "What do you make of that?" One of my personal favorites is, "At that moment, what was the conversation like inside your head?" (I stole that from Alex Blumberg.) A question like this will get your dad to talk about his decision-making process. Keep in mind that your Dad's life, like everyone’s life, is a series of choices, and if you can get him to expound on how he navigated forks in the road, it will reveal deeper truths. Also—and this is no small thing—you'll be able to listen back to his voice long after he's gone as you traverse the difficulties you have yet to face.
You may want to ask your dad about his relationship with your mom (if they're divorced, maybe not). You never want an interview to feel like an interrogation, so if things get uncomfortable or you feel the energy dip, have an array of topics written down that you can pivot to at any time.
Asking a series of questions can become exhausting. I like to have a few stories up my sleeve to give my guests time to breathe. When interviewing your dad, in addition to having questions ready, think of a couple of stories about your adventures together, or a lesson that he taught you. You don't always need to ask a question to get a great answer, sometimes you can tell your own story and your dad will riff on it.
An interview can sound a lot like a conversation, but there are subtle differences. Joe Rogan often talks as much or more than his guests, but, miraculously, it doesn't sound like he's talking over them. This is because Rogan waits for his guest to finish speaking before he makes his next statement. But most of us are shitty listeners. We interrupt each other constantly. And often, when the other person is speaking, we are miles away, grasping for the next awesome thing to say, hoping to impress them or ourselves—or someone. Don't do this. When your dad is speaking, shut up. Pay attention. And then when you ask him a question, base it upon what you’ve just heard in order to advance the conversation, rather than show him how smart, or funny or wise you are.
Have you ever tried to give a speech to an empty room? It's nearly impossible. When we speak, we want to know that someone is listening. In daily conversation, we show people that we're listening by saying things like, "Wow, uh-huh, cool." Don't do this. If your dad is telling a story about the time he was deployed in Vietnam, taking on enemy fire, and he looked up at the smoky sky and saw a cloud in the shape of a ballerina, and that was the moment he realized that he wanted to be a dancer, don't fuck up his story with an uh-huh.
Prep Your Tech
You can conduct the most fabulous interview in the multiverse, but if there's a lawnmower doing its thing in the background, it's worthless. If you’re interviewing your dad remotely, ask him to find a quiet place with fast internet. It's OK if he uses the built-in computer mic, but better if you have an external mic, or in-ear headphones. Be prepared: Record a test call with a friend beforehand so you can focus on the interview when it's go-time. Make sure you're in a room with light on your face, so you don't look like an extra from “World War Z”. Your computer should be about eye level, so if it's too low, prop it up on books.
Make sure to have your questions written down next to you. Keep your questions on one page, so you're not flipping back and forth between pages. Oh, and when it's time to go, remember to press the big red record button. You wouldn’t believe how many hours of interview gold have been lost because somebody forgot to press “record”.
Make the Call
There really is no time like the present. So if you want to interview your dad (or your mom), do it now. It's one hour that you will remember for the rest of your life.
Below are a few sample questions to get you started. The rest is about following your own curiosity. I stole some of these from Tim Ferriss and the rest from my dad.
- Tell me a story about when you met Mom.
- If you could give your 30-year-old self one piece of advice, what would you say?
- What is the stupidest thing you've done for money?
- What skill are you working to improve most right now?
- What is the best lesson your father ever taught you?
- What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Header image by Dylan Ferreira via Unsplash.
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