#writetip Witness Interviews: Tips from a Private Investigator

Interviewing is more than asking a set of questions. It’s an art. Even with all of today’s whiz-bang technology, people’s words are still the most powerful declaration of where they stand – and what they know. Even the words a person chooses not to speak can still speak volumes to his/her motive, who they might be protecting, and what they're hiding.

Interviewing People Who Don't Want to Be Interviewed

Maybe a person is angry to be dragged into somebody else's problem, or frightened to give testimony in court, or even scared that what they know will hurt someone they care about. There's also the possibility that the individual is nervous about being subpoenaed to court because he/she has failed to show up in the past for their own court date, and therefore might be taken into custody for their own issues, right there in the courtroom, which is a very real concern. 

Which means a private detective must be attuned to people and skilled at persuading them to share what they know. We've all seen the private eye movies where the PI rants and threatens or even slams some guy into a wall to get him to open up. In real life, if a PI wants someone to open up and spill the beans, the investigator needs to be part shrink, part confidante, part actor -- all with the goal of gaining that person's trust.

"I Don't Care That He Said No -- Get the Interview!"

Years ago, I worked for a tough-taskmaster defense attorney who taught me that my job was to get the interview. Period.  Didn't matter if someone had just slammed a door in my face.  Didn't matter that I was nervous about interviewing a subject who had possible ties to organized crime and who also had a pit bull for a pet, I was never to say, "I couldn't get so-and-so to talk," because he'd snap, "I don't care -- get the interview."

Of course, I could have simply stopped working for this lawyer, but he remains to this day one of the top defense lawyers in the state and I didn't want to lose my spot as one of his investigators just because I was too chicken to nail an interview. As to the guy with the pit bull, we made arrangements ahead of time that the pit bull was to remain in the backyard, and although the dog stared at me the entire time through a window, the interview itself went quite well.

Several years ago, I wrote a column titled "P.I. Confidential" for Novelists, Inc.'s newsletter NINC that offered tips to writers crafting sleuth characters/stories. Below is a link to one those articles about interviewing witnesses that covers such issues as:

  • What might a PI do if the interviewee later claims the investigator misrepresented his story?
  • What does the interviewer do if the recording device decides to die just as the interview starts?
  • What if the subject starts talking about something that is seemingly off-topic?

Article link:

The Art of Interviewing: The Pitfalls, Pratfalls, and Shortfalls