That means going to great lengths to interview people who have expertise and passion for the subject you’re writing about. In journalism school, aspiring reporters are taught to use the interview to expand upon the basic “who, what, where, how, when and why” of newsgathering.
Only the best journalists will venture beyond the 5 Ws and the H and take the time to listen effectively and probe beyond the obvious. Readers are drawn to stories that pack a punch created by thoughtful writers who look for the context, impact and emotion to make their words come alive.
In this tutorial, I’ll provide a list of ways to conduct effective interviews based on my experience writing stories for dozens of publications. We will cover the best ways I’ve found to prepare for, conduct and follow through with interviews of all kinds.
Let’s begin by looking at the different tools to use for recording the information as you receive it.
- I’ve found I conduct my most successful interviews in a quiet environment where I can concentrate on my subject without distraction.
- Rather than wasting time transcribing, my primary recording method is to type notes on my iPad or laptop.
- I have a small digital recorder that I use as a backup.
- When I get back to my office, I email my notes to the PC and clean them up before beginning to write my story.
- For in-person interviews, bring extra business cards in case your interview subject introduces you around.
- If distance or schedule doesn’t allow for face-to-face interviews, I conduct them over the phone using a wireless headset and type their responses into my computer.
As time allows, research the person you will be interviewing to learn their qualifications
- The internet is a great source – proving public information about virtually anyone.
- If you are writing in detail about your story subject, talk to other people to learn more about them prior to your interview.
- Go to your subject’s company website, read articles this person has written and stories written about them.
- If the subject is a technical or scientific expert, it’s especially important to be prepared. You will want to make it clear that you’re capable of representing their expertise in writing.
My own curiosity guides the questions I prepare. Also, if I’ve been assigned the interview, I ask the questions that help enhance and direct my content in order to satisfy the client.
- Ask yourself: What do I want to get out of this interview?
- Think about the 5 Ws and the H, and craft your questions to cover all of those angles
- Be prepared to ask follow-up questions to illuminate interesting points
- Put your questions in some kind of order, from the most general ones to those that get into more detail or complexity.
- Always be ready to divert from the order or content based on the answers.
Ernest Hemingway noted that “most people never listen.” Not surprisingly, the best interviewers are wonderful listeners.
- It’s important to hear not only the content you’re listening for, but the tone of voice and attitude behind the words. That information will help you phrase your questions to obtain additional detail.
- Be patient, polite and respectful – even if the subject is difficult to deal with or reluctant to offer insights.
- Ask for referrals to other sources.
- Don’t be shy about asking your subject for extra time as you write their comments down, or request that they repeat an important point.
- Write down more than what you hear in an interview – note what you see.
- Some of my best quotes come after I assume the interview is over, so after the interview is over, I always ask if there is something he/she would care to add.
- Let your source know that you may call back to gather additional information or check facts.
Here are some quick notes on interviewing from the Poynter Institute, the world’s leading instructor, innovator, convener and resource for journalists.
- Ask the person for his/her name and position up front.
- Ask open-ended questions that will elicit more than “yes” or “no” answers.
- Keep your questions neutral in tone.
- Ask for definitions, examples, anecdotes.
- Ask questions your audience/readers want to know the answers to.
- Keep your questions short and to the point.
- Ask one question at a time (do not double-up on questions).
- Be prepared to ask follow-up questions—and be sure to be listening for questions that require a follow-up.
- Do not make assumptions.
- Make sure you are asking a question, rather than making a commentary.
- Do not argue with the person you are interviewing.
- Do not try to cover too much territory during the interview. Remember your focus.
- Be polite, but persistent. Keep asking until you get a response to your question.
- Prepare a closing question.
- Review your notes as soon as possible after the interview, while everything is fresh in your mind and annotate the most important points.
- Consider outlining your story immediately based on your interview, or even sitting down to write the story.
- Finally, follow the general rules of storytelling outlined in my previous blog, Simple Steps to Better Storytelling.
Careful preparation helps interviewers overcome self-consciousness and shyness. But only successful repetition of the interviewing process will make you comfortable.
Rather than avoiding interviews, I now look forward to them. I enjoy meeting new people and learning new things, and interviewing is second-nature to me. Other than the creative process of writing stories, it’s one of my favorite parts of my communications work.