As promised in our original Sunday Special on interviewing, what follows are my top interviewing tips. Just because I’ve written them here doesn’t mean I always follow them; in fact, it’s more like every interview is an effort to stay as honest to them as possible. All too often I catch myself right in the middle of one of my own big “don’ts” but, for what it’s worth, here they are:
(1) Sounds simple but: ask a question! Not asking a question is like a salesperson not asking for the sale. Still, you hear it over and over again; especially in sports interviews. The interviewer makes a statement and then waits expectantly for the interviewee to comment. Sometimes they’re lucky and their subject generously formulates some kind of answer but, even then, they probably aren’t getting the best material possible.
(2) Don’t assume. If you hear yourself starting to say “That must have been…” or “You must have felt…” stop! Don’t tell your subject they must have been scared. There’s a chance they’ll just agree whereas, if you had kept quiet and asked a question (see number one) they might have told you they were actually exhilarated.
(3) Let them talk. When you listen to your interviews after you do them you should hear more of the interviewee than of your own voice.
(4) The first one to talk loses. This goes something like this. You ask a difficult / controversial / emotional question. Your subject hesitates. They are on the cusp of giving you a meaningful / insightful / emotional response – the response that will make your story – and what do you do? You let your instinct to be kind and polite kick in and you say something, anything, and it destroys the moment and you never get that great answer.
(5) Be prepared. Understand the angle of your story. Read up on your subject. Write out a list of questions. Bring the list with you. Have fresh batteries in your recorder. Have a spare set of batteries. Have a pen that works. Have paper. Be on time. Get the pertinent details (names, proper spellings, ages, dates, etc.).
(6) Have some “go-to” questions. For me there are two. There’s the one I think of as the combo; the best-worst question. “What was the best thing about that experience?” followed by “What was the most challenging part?” These tend to get good stories from people. And I always finish with the ‘cover-your-butt’ question: “Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to add?” I’ve had some golden answers from this one and some of them have been things that really, really needed to be in the story. You can develop your own “go-to” questions; they’re a great tool to have.
(7) Interview in person if possible, over the phone as a second choice, by e-mail only as a last resort and, then, only for certain sorts of stories. Almost every in-person interview I’ve conducted has given me either the introduction to, or a central part of, the story. For example, I just wrote a story for my community paper about a much-loved local teacher who is retiring. During the course of the interview she explained how she had broken the news of her retirement to her colleague of 18 years “right here” and pointed to the pint-sized tables and chairs in the room. I could immediately picture what that must have been like and it provided the lead-in for my story.
(8) Transcribe your interviews. I have the funny feeling I might be considered a stickler here but I transcribe all my interviews. It really helps me. First, it gives me confidence I’ve got my facts, figures and quotes bang on. More importantly, though, my brain kind of runs on auto-pilot in the background as I transcribe and I find pieces of the story fall into place so when I sit down to write there’s already some sort of plan in place. In other words, the time I spend transcribing often gets recouped in the time I don’t spend staring hopelessly at a blank screen and that’s always a good thing.
Finally, if you’re really interested in interviewing and learning more about it, here are a couple of resources recommended by my great friend, Tim Currie, from the journalism program at the University of King’s College:
• Asking questions: The art of the media interview by Paul McLaughlin
• The John Sawatsky method