Top 10 basic interviewing tips for journalists

betty ming liu Relationships, Writing how-to's 19 Comments

The ability to conduct a great interview is more than a journalistic tool that gets me great stories. Interviewing is also 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. Questions can make people uncomfortable. They can be intrusive. But with active listening and strategically paced questions, the best interviews can feel like two people speaking their truth to each other.

The goal is to step out of the formal interview structure (if possible). 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.

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. Whether I’m about to enter a social moment or a job interview, I’m pretty relaxed.

Of course, I might have expectations of how things will go or what I want to accomplish. But interviews rarely go the way I expect. Dealing with real people in real life means anything can – and will – happen.

With time and practice, I learned that the best way to approach an interview is to breathe, avoid nervous chatter and stay brave.

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: Your use of emotional words can negatively influence the interview. Even seasoned professionals make this mistake, especially when they’re rushing to nail a quote. If you ask someone if they’re happy, they’ll probably answer: “Yes, I am HAPPY that blah blah.” Instead, frame the question without emotion: “How do you feel about winning the Nobel Peace Prize?” Asking them how they feel allows them to use their own words.

Do your research: The more you know about the interview subject life and work, the more power you have in framing neutral, fact-filled question that get results. Imagine if you asked something like this: “Congratulations on your award. I’m so sorry to hear that your grandmother, who scrubbed floors to pay for your education, died  two weeks ago. If you could say something to her right now, what would it be?” You can imagine just how rich the answer 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 worried about looking dumb. When subjects talked about stuff that I didn’t understand, I was afraid to ask them to explain or repeat the statement. I felt like an imposter. But over time, I realized it was fine for me to admit I was learning. Even when I’ve spent hours doing background research in preparation for an interview, there’s still stuff I’m unaware of. It’s okay to admit that. 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.

And, a bonus pro tip: Make a statement 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. Let’s try one more: I can’t imagine going through that.  Both of these questions respects the interviewee’s feelings and lets them decide how much to share.

For more on this topic, check out 5 interviewing tips that work in journalism and real life. 


Comments 19

  1. 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. 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.

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    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.

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    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:

  5. 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.

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      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.

  6. 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 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
    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.

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  7. 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.

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      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!

  8. Pingback: Checklist: Write better using journalism tricks | betty ming liu

  9. 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.

  10. 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?

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    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!

  12. 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.

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  13. Pingback: 5 interviewing tips that work in journalism and real life

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