Knowing how to interview is more than a journalistic tool for getting great stories. Knowing how to ask and listen is actually an essential life skill. My top 10 tips for journalists can also lead to more loving, productive conversations with the people I care about most. I also have much better conversations inside of my head, with myself. :)
Looking back to my rookie days, I had a lot to unlearn about interviewing. I was a newbie reporter who made the 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. Let’s be honest: 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 I can get the other person to relax and just talk, watch out! Real conversations buzz with an adrenalin that’s electric. On one level, I’m calmly pacing the flow of the professional interview.
But at the same time, I’m adjusting to vulnerable emotions or raw truth that might surface from the interviewee. This means I’m conscious of the need to build and maintain trust. All the while, i’m on the alert for fresh revelations that might be news.
With practice over the years, interviewing transformed me from an insecure, shy, young woman into someone who just loves meeting people. Of course, I still 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, stay brave and stick to my 10 basic interviewing tips.
10 Ways to Transform Your Interviewing Skills
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, family members 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 just too chaotic. Instead, ask the first question. Stop. Wait for an answer. Then, ask Question #2. 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 in a rush to grab a quick quote. This leads to lame results. So if you ask someone if they’re happy about XYZ, they’ll probably answer: “Yes, I’m happy about XYZ.” The best approach is to frame the question without emotion: “How do you feel about winning the Nobel Peace Prize?” Asking them how they feel uses neutral language. This gives them space to articulate their emotions in their own words.
Do your research: The more you know about the interview subject’s life and work, the more skillful your questions will be. Imagine if you asked something like this: “Congratulations on your award. I’m so sorry to hear about the recent death of your grandmother, who scrubbed floors to pay for your education. If you could say something to her right now, what would it be?” Now, your use of facts has opened the way for an authentic answer.
Construct a chronology: If you create a timeline, you have a better shot at following the interviewee’s story. For an issue story, you need to figure out what events took place and when. When the story is about a person’s life, getting the basic biography helps you to ask questions that fill holes in the story. 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 reality is that even your sources can inadvertently supply wrong information. For instance: You might find wrong or outdated info on social media, or a corporate or personal website. This is why we have to 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 deeper. 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 show respect. There’s empathy for the interviewee’s reality, which lets them decide how much to share.
For a summarized blog post on this topic, check out 5 interviewing tips that work in journalism and real life.