5 interviewing tips that work in journalism and real life

betty ming liu Relationships, Writing how-to's 10 Comments

My parents raised me to be polite and nice. That meant keeping my mouth shut. I guess my decision to become a journalist was a form of revenge. After all, this is a job that allows me to ask lots of nosy questions and be direct.

But the more I work, the more I realize that it’s NOT about the questions. In fact, the fewer I ask, the more effective I am. A few strategically-placed remarks and questions are plenty. Whether we’re talking work or personal life, the more I shut up, the more I connect.

It’s called the art of conversation. I used to tell my journalism students that only rookies assault their interview subjects with a barrage of questions. Embarrassing!

And on the home front, the less I ask of my teen daughter, the more she sticks around to chat. (Although, I still don’t get that much out of her at this age.) Haha!

As for going out on job interviews, I know these tips are gold because my students tell me they’ve helped (and also work for me every time). If you can walk in there and create a confident discussion rather than answering questions like a scared mouse, then you become a candidate worth dealing with.

Here are my five tips for interviewing and developing good convo:

  • Embrace the awkward silences: This one’s really hard — and super-powerful. No matter how squirmy I feel, shutting up is the way to go. At some point, the other person can’t take it and starts talking. Then things get interesting.
  • Active listening is key: Passive listening means letting someone drone on and on. As an active listener, I’m trying to discern what the person cares about, what makes them tick. Then I steer in that direction as the gateway to connecting.
  •  The more I’m prepped, the better the conversation: When I have done the reporting to understand the interview subject’s world, we have context. I can ask less, yet learn more by framing informed questions and comments.
  • Don’t expect to cover all the points in a single conversation: When I stop rushing people through both professional and personal interactions, everybody breathes. If there’s a once-in-a-lifetime encounter and I anxiously hit that person with a bunch of questions, watch him/her back away. Fail, every time.
  • The fewer the questions, the more genuine the spark: I always told my journalism students that asking someone a question is a privilege, not a right. Instead, make statements — what I call the “statement question,” “non-question” or “silent question.” For instance, people hate it when I ask: “How old are you?” Instead, I’ll say: “I need to ask your age for this story, hope you don’t mind.”

If you want more specifics on interviewing, please check out my blog post on Top 10 Basic Interviewing Tips for Journalists.

And, here’s a bonus tip, one that’s really important…

I actually enjoy meeting people! Doesn’t matter what they look like, what they do for a living, or what we’re talking about. Human beings, by nature, are fascinating. And if we’re open to them, there’s always a meaningful moment to share.   :)



Comments 10

  1. Post

    If you want to amuse yourself today, may I suggest experimenting with the silent question? The challenge: try shutting up when you most feel the urge to run your mouth — especially when you’re tempted to babble, vent or argue.

    I’ve used this trick in the workplace, journalism interviews and personal relationships with stunning results. In fact, my daughter now uses it on me. We rarely argue now about cleaning her room because she no longer defends the mess. When she’s not arguing back, I have no one to spar with. So I stop yelling.

    Of course, her room still rarely gets cleaned up. But sometimes it does, when she’s ready to do it on her own. And in the end, isn’t that the goal, to create interactions that inspire people to think for themselves, at their own pace, in their own time?

  2. Hi Betty,
    All of your journalism posts have been so helpful, especially since I have been trying to get back into the swing of things! Thanks for sharing all of your tips and tricks.

  3. The “statement question” is a technique I think I’ve used a little, but without giving thought to it. Now that you have drawn my attention to it, I will wield it consciously, especially with the age question. Even putting a “may I ask” in front doesn’t soften it enough. But to frame it as: “I need to ask X for this story, hope you don’t mind,” sounds like it could meet less resistance. Thanks for the tips!

  4. “When I have done the reporting to understand…” This word reporting had me stumped, but I am not a journalist. I’d say background or research to say I already knew the context somewhat.

    I enjoyed your blog because as an introvert I don’t like questions.

  5. Post

    Erica, how nice to hear from you! Well the good thing about these suggestions is that they make useful life skills, whether you’re doing journalism or not.

    Danny, it really helps to just keep things conversational and natural. Like you said, you’re already doing this stuff; it’s just about being more self-aware about technique.

    Haha, Ivan. Concise!

    Jody, thank you for reminding me to be clear. Yes, “reporting” is a journalistic way of saying “research.” Btw, a lot of reporters who are great interviewers are quite introverted. Being an introvert makes you more aware of people’s (dis)comfort level and in an interviewer, that can lead to a more sensitive, skilled approach to dealing with people. :)

  6. Post
  7. One of the best interview tips you gave me was to stop interviewing by phone, and to go do it in person. It made the story I was working on so much better when I was able to connect in person. Granted it was a challenge on that particular story, but I owe all the compliments and praise on that piece about Iraqi refugees to you! Thx for this post, too!

  8. Post

    Laura, totally agree — your story was a completely different piece after you met people face to face. Sometimes phone is all we can manage but it’s never the first choice. I’m so glad you had a chance to cover the piece in such a dynamic way. :)

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

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