The ability to conduct a great interview is more than a journalistic triumph. Sure, it’s a skill that gets me great stories. But along the way, it’s become a critical life skill that helps me in everything from partying hearty to landing jobs.
Looking back to my rookie days, I made the newbie reporter’s obnoxious mistake of marching up to people and attacking them with questions. Groan. This is what comes from watching too many Hollywood movies: The public has a right to know, dammit…
Oh, really? It took me years to understand that asking questions is a privilege, not a right. In truth, the interview format is an unnatural act because it’s a power play. Reporters have the power of the press. Interview subjects have the power to withhold desirable information.
The goal is to get out of that structure and start a conversation. If you can get the other person to relax and just talk, watch out! A real conversation is electric; you will feel it. While you will always remember that you are conducting a professional interview, you are now in control because the other person has begun to trust you.
Don’t screw it up.
Be worthy of that trust.
With practice over the years, interviewing transformed me from an insecure, shy, young woman into someone who just loves meeting people. Watch me walk into a room. Whether I’m about to enter a social moment or a job interview, I’m pretty relaxed. Of course, things don’t always go my way. Sometimes, I need to take deep breath to stay brave. But anything can happen, and it will. That’s what makes life fun.
As a journalism professor and media trainer, I’ve spent many years teaching introductory interviewing skills to both students and professionals. Getting through just the basics usually takes a few hours. Here are some of the highlights:
10 Basic Interviewing Tips
Define the interview: Even when you’re dealing with people who know you, they still do NOT know exactly what you want. So whether with strangers or trusted sources, pitch your intentions simply and clearly. People need boundaries. It helps them to feel safe: I’m doing a story on marijuana use and have a few questions. I don’t need to quote you by name. This will only take 10 minutes of your time.
Ask only one question at a time: How old are you and where do you live? What got you into this situation you’re in now? Imagine if you were asked that all at once. Which question would you answer first? This is too confusing for everyone. Ask how old the person is. Stop. Wait for an answer. Then, ask about the address. Stop, get the answer. Manage the pace.
Use neutral language: If you use emotional words, you skew the interview. Even seasoned professionals make this mistake, especially when they’re rushing to nail a quote. Question: “Are you happy that you won the Nobel Peace Prize?” Guess what the answer will be: “Yes, I am HAPPY that blah blah.” Instead, frame the question without emotion: “How do you feel about winning the Nobel Peace Prize?” Better! But if you do your reporting and know something about the interview subject, you could frame an even more dynamic neutral-but-fact-filled question: “Your grandmother, who scrubbed floors to buy your first chemistry set, died of cancer two weeks ago. What would you say to her right now?” Can you imagine how rich the answer to that question would be?
Construct a chronology: You need to create a timeline so that you can keep the facts straight. If you’re reporting on an issue, figure out what events took place and when. If this topic is a person’s life, you need to get the basic biography down before the conversational interview can take flight. When did you get involved? What happened next? Where did you go from there?
Verify basic facts: These days, you can pull all kinds of information from the Internet. Doesn’t mean it’s true. The other reality is that even your sources — the people you’re interviewing — can supply wrong information. Maybe the secretary made a mistake that nobody noticed. Or there might be a typo. So check every single little thing.
Set a conversational tone: When possible, find a non-threatening way to establish rapport. If the subject is wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of a sports team, a musical artist or a political cause, use that as an ice breaker. “I see you’re a Yankees fan. Wasn’t that last game blah blah blah?”
Pace your questions in a non-threatening order: Whether you’ve got 10 minutes or 90 minutes with your subject, pacing is key. This is like composing a song. There’s a beginning, middle and end. You don’t jump from hello to: “What happened the night that your father killed your mother?” Make good music; always be conscious of mood.
It’s okay to ask for clarification: When I first started interviewing, I felt really dumb. When subjects talked about stuff that I didn’t understand, I was afraid to ask them to explain or repeat the statement because it would reveal me as a fraud. No more! Now I just admit that I’m dumb. Even when I’ve spent hours doing background research in preparation for an interview, there’s so much I don’t know. Can you repeat that? Can you explain that again? Hmmm, I’m not sure I understand. How would you explain that to your kid or to your mother?
Ask follow up questions: Sometimes, you have to dig a little bit more. A couple of questions might be in order. Help your subject to complete the thought. They are in their own heads and usually don’t realize that information is missing.
Make statements instead of asking questions: This is the secret to the conversational interview: STOP ASKING QUESTIONS. Instead, frame your question differently: I was wondering how you escaped from that burning building. See that? No question. But what you’ve asked is, How did you escape from that burning building? There are endless variations, if you imagine you’re just chatting. Let’s try one more: I don’t know what I would do if I lost my job. That’s a very tactful, sensitive way to ask the following: What kind of humiliating, scary experiences did you have when you lost your job?
For more on this topic, check out 5 interviewing tips that work in journalism and real life.