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 questions are only a small part of interviewing. Actually, the less I ask, the more information I get out of people. A few strategically-placed remarks and questions are plenty. Whether we’re talking work or personal life, the more I get quiet and listen, the more I connect.

It’s called the art of conversation. Research by communication experts show that human do more listening than talking.

So as I matured as a journalist, I learned that assaulting interview subjects with questions only happens in badly-made movies. Meanwhile, on the home front, the less I ask 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!

The tips I’m about to share also work in job interviews. I know these tips are gold because my students tell me they’ve helped. They also definitely work for me every time).

When I can walk into a room and start a confident discussion rather than answering questions like a scared mouse, then I become more than a job candidate. I become a human being who is inviting another human to meet me eyeball to eyeball as equals.

Here are my five tips for interviewing and making conversation:

  • Embrace the awkward silences: This one’s really hard — and super-powerful. No matter how squirmy I feel, breathing calmly and sitting quietly the way to go. At some point, the silence usually becomes too much for the other person. This is when they start talking. From here, 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: Research is essential. 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.
  • We might need more than one conversation: Interviews involve trust and time. I used to rush through them because I had so many questions and points to cover. Now, I realize that everybody needs space to breathe and reflect. This is true even if the interview or conversation seems like a once-in-a-lifetime encounter — hitting people with a bunch of questions kills the mood. They back away. Fail, every time.
  • The fewer the questions, the more genuine the spark: I always tell my journalism students that asking someone a question is a privilege, not a right. Instead, I encourage them to make statements — what I call the “statement question,” “non-question” or “silent question.” For instance, I’ll just say, “I would love to know how you felt about that.” From here, the person can choose to respond or skip over to something else. I have given them the power to move at their own pace.

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! 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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