December 3, 2012

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.