The Art of the Interview

ReporterBack when I worked full-time in newspapers, I was occasionally called upon to do what were referred to as “brown baggers” – mini seminars that could take place over a lunch hour – as well as speak to visiting students during journalism-related events involving local high schools.

At several of these, I was asked to discuss interviewing techniques. It’s been a while since I offered any advice on this, but recently I was asked by a young colleague at one of my copy writing clients to offer some tips on getting a good interview. Here’s a slightly altered version of our exchange.

Dear Scott:

I hope this email finds you well. I am an intern working on my first story  and I wanted to reach out to you to see what strategies you may be able to suggest for successful interviewing. 

Are there certain questions which you find elicit quote-worthy responses? Do you utilize any applications to record interviews? If there is any other insight you have to share, it will be greatly appreciated!

Thank you,

A.

Dear A:

I’m a big proponent of the “first date” approach to interviewing. I gather whatever background I can on the topic I’m going to be discussing or the person I’ll be interviewing (just like you’d Google stalk a potential date – not that I would EVER do that, of course). Going in knowing just enough to be dangerous allows you to ask intelligent questions but still not sound like you know everything about the subject already.

I also don’t prepare a list of questions in a formal fashion. I know what I’m going to ask based on my research or direction from the editor or project manager. I’ll often write a list of cues, but I prefer for interviews to take a very organic course and be very conversational. Rigid lists of questions don’t usually allow for that. As the “first date” label suggests, you’re trying to express some genuine curiosity in what the interview subject has to tell you, so I phrase my questions accordingly.

This works particularly well with “regular folks.” People who work in government or at executive or managerial jobs are often used to speaking in front of others or being interviewed, but “civilians” – regular people who usually don’t find themselves the subject of an interview – are often suspicious of you or unfamiliar with the process, which makes interviewing (particularly over the phone) a bit trickier. Therefore it’s easier to just get them talking about the subject at hand and redirect the conversation if necessary.

You’ll find that this is a great method to generate “quote worthy” comments, since interview subjects feel more comfortable if they’re just having a chat as opposed to undergoing an interrogation. The job of mining through your notes to find that standout quote is your job, but if I hear something special during the interview, I’ll usually highlight it somehow to remember.

Also, don’t let the interview peter out at the end. So many times I’ve come to the “end” of an interview and had subjects start asking me about myself. I’m always willing to share a little, and this frequently cues them to tell a story about the topic at hand that will contain either A) the brilliant, standout quote, or B) the touching, hilarious or otherwise relevant anecdote that would make a perfect lede to the story.

As for recording, I usually don’t find it necessary for quick turnaround work. I have the advantage of having come out of newspapers, where speed is key. I type my notes as the interview subject is speaking, and make sure to use a headset (I use a Bluetooth earpiece with my smartphone) for the interviews so both hands are free and I don’t have to worry about the phone slipping off my shoulder mid-conversation. It never hurts to create an improvised shorthand for yourself so you don’t have to type out every single word.

I do have an Olympus digital recorder for in-person interviews and an app on my phone that allows me to record phone calls (Smart Voice from Google Play – I’m sure there’s a comparable iPhone app), but recording interviews has a tendency to make me lazy with note taking, then I just have to go back and waste more time listening to the recording when I’d rather just start writing straight from my typed notes. I might only use it for someone who I know is a VERY fast talker or for a story that I know will be longer form and will take more time anyway.

For those of you who are in (or have been in) the journalism biz, what did I miss? I’m all too aware that this didn’t cover more confrontational interview situations, so what suggestions would you offer in that regard? Let me know in the comments thread. Thanks!

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