Top 10 basic interviewing tips for journalists

December 3, 2012 · 18 comments

in Journalism how-to's, Relationships

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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 a deep breath to get my courage up. 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 kit, 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?

There’s so, so much more to interviewing. If you like, we can re-visit this topic again. But this is enough to get started. :)

 

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 W. Koch December 3, 2012 at 8:50 am

Betty,

Your advice on interviewing and writing has been so helpful to me. I always refer back to your excellent tips as I’m out and about with sweaty palms, trying to appear much more confident than I am! Thanks so much for such a concise and useful list. Practically a reporter’s bible!

2 Skye December 3, 2012 at 10:36 am

This would be great to re-visit again! It can definitely work in the work setting or a casual party. I’m realizing that there is more than one way to get an answer.

3 betty ming liu December 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm

W., thanks for dropping by. It’s been a while and glad that what we discussed so long ago remains useful. I appreciate you letting me know!

Skye, in a party, this is a way to start a conversation without being a busybody. Right after I got married a million years ago, I dragged my husband to a reporters’ party. He said it was really weird that everyone walked around asking questions, some people at a machine-gun pace. That was the beginning of my realization that it’s important to have boundaries and remember to be human.

4 betty ming liu December 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Oh, and btw, this post is dedicated to the journalism students at York College in Queens. It’s one of the schools within the City University of New York. As a former student at City College & a Baruch College grad, I LOVE being at my alma mater. Thank you for the invite! And if you want to see us in action, here’s the photo I posted on Twitter via Twitpic: http://twitpic.com/birwxm

5 Shabbir Hussain Imam December 3, 2012 at 8:46 pm

The eleventh tip for Journalists in Pakistan … Please always be on time. Usually media persons (either print or electronic) not much taking care of the time (appointments) and this happens mostly because value of time is not embedded with journalism in this part of the world. All the best everyone.

6 MJ & TJ December 4, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Betty,
Good list! I think I would add one more item. This relates to dealing with people who deal with confidental and classified information. They are generally not going to give you any information. Using what they are wearing as an “Ice breaker” won’t work. What they are wearing is designed to be a distraction. This is part of opperational security. Conversations about sports teams etc. will go no further than that.
It is best to find out who you can talk to. Then you may only get a press release or less. As an example in 1980 Eugene F. Yeates sued the NSA to get information under the freedom of information act about UFO’s. Information was eventually released but there was considerable redaction of information. Even the response in the court has some cosiderable redaction (see http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/_files/ufo/in_camera_affadavit_yeates.pdf) Their site has become even more “user friendly” however the number of documents is now reduced to only 10 on COMINT (COMunication INTellegence) They had more documents last summer but many were censored to the point of being totally meaningless!
When you obtain an original document it is important to study it. It is going to be a like solving a puzzle (put together by the puzzle masters) Beyond what was clearly released you should study the patern of redactions and partial disclosures. Also look at markings such as brackets. Here is an original document to look at http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/_files/ufo/comint_part_e.pdf
notice they have written on it that it is 125 pages long but covers only 25 pages. Also how many diffrent security classifications were involved?
Anyway I hope this helps your students in some way.

7 michelle Keegan December 5, 2012 at 11:02 am

What is the typical Journalism 101 text book used in most colleges these days? I has been such a long time and I am wondering what I am missing. Thanks for the Interview basics. It is always wonderful to revisit the foundamentals.

8 betty ming liu December 5, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Michelle, to be honest, I don’t have the vaguest idea! I never taught from a text book. Students seemed perfectly happy to use my handouts and worksheets, especially since I saved them tons of money. A good journalist text can run you in the $90 range!

9 betty ming liu December 5, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Thanks for the advice. :)

10 betty ming liu December 5, 2012 at 9:48 pm

Shabbir, being on time is super-important anywhere! I usually tell students that they should show up for interviews about 10 minutes early. If you arrive exactly on time, it’s so rushed. If you arrive earlier than 10 minutes, then it feels too early. Thanks for adding this tip.

11 Leslie December 10, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Good pointers, Betty. I just finished teaching an intro to journalism class to high school students. It was a 9-week course. We did some interviewing, but if I ever get the chance to teach a course like this again, I will definitely do more, and include these tips from you!!! Some of them I knew, but, they seem better organized when reading them from someone who is “not inside my head”. On a personal note, I haven’t been able to scare up much freelance or permanent journalism job offers lately. If you’ve got any leads, def send them along.

12 Skye December 10, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Ditto to what Leslie said. Any leads, kindly pass them along.

13 Amanda H. December 10, 2012 at 11:05 pm

This was so helpful, Betty! I’ve got a big interview tomorrow and I found this very helpful. The chronology and clarifications ones are especially useful. Also, I’ve found some of the best answers come from when I say something wrong. For example, when I do a follow-up question and rephrase something from earlier in their answer and miss a word or incorrectly convey a statement they usually explain things more clearly or respond with even more conviction. What are the ethics of asking a deliberately incorrect question or making a deliberately incorrect statement?

14 betty ming liu December 12, 2012 at 8:09 am

Leslie and Skye, I have to confess, I DETEST freelancing because it’s so hard. Freelancing has never been my strength. But here’s advice that I’ve heard from others: find websites to write for. They don’t pay much and sometimes they don’t pay at all. But they give you an outlet for your work and make you look fresh. From there, you can jump to bigger publications. A steady outlet could be very helpful.

Amanda, hope your interview went well. As for mis-stating something on purpose, my general rule is that in life, what goes around comes around. Don’t do something if you would NOT want it done to you. So if you are okay with people deliberately posing something incorrect to you, then go ahead, do it….Treating people the way you want to be treated is good karma. Just sayin’. Hope this doesn’t come across too preachy!

15 Skye December 12, 2012 at 8:43 am

I’ve freelanced for the past several years and it is challenging. The plus has been, as a single parent, being able to be there for my son while he’s growing up. The drawbacks? Too much to mention in one post. A lot of stress and feeling on edge.

16 Lauren J. Mapp March 1, 2013 at 6:12 pm

Thanks for the great advice for young journalists! I referenced you in a blog post about conducting interviews.

http://laurenjmapp.blogspot.com/2013/03/how-to-fight-off-evil-interview.html

17 betty ming liu March 3, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Thanks for referring to my blog post, Lauren. I really appreciate it!

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