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Mastering the Interview

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at 5:26 PM

Tips and techniques for getting the most from your interviewees.

By Denise Gable

Good interviews can make or break an article. While some interview subjects know exactly what they want to say, others can make you work for a simple quote. Writers who have the ability to do an interview that brings the subject to life in their articles have a skill everyone should aspire to. We present advice from three experts on getting the most from your subjects.

Tips for Conducting a Great Interview

In the pages of Forbes magazine, writer Shel Israel offers "9 Tips on Conducting Great Interviews." In brief, here is what he says:

1. Start slow, safe, and personal.

Israel likes to begin with a question aimed at relaxing the subject -- for instance, "Where did you grow up?" or "What was your first job out of college?" This approach also helps to build rapport, he suggests.

2. Coax, don't hammer.

Using an informal off-the-cuff style can lead to "revealing, newsworthy, useful answers."

3. Make some questions open-ended.

The idea is to "get the interviewee to tell his story and let the readers decide what they think of his or her ideas."

4. Ask what you don't know.

This can lead to surprising areas that the subject has not previously revealed.

5. Let the interviewees wander a bit -- but be careful.

If you try to control the path of the interview too much, you may miss something important the interviewee has to say. Don't let that give license to the subject to stick only to talking points.

6. Don't send advance questions.

Avoid over-scripting your interview.

7. Be prepared. Find the overlooked.

Do your research first so you can go with the flow -- and ask insightful follow-up questions.

8. Listen, really listen.

Keep in mind the interview is about what the subject will say, not about your list of questions. Make note of what the subject does not answer, too.

9. There are dumb questions.

Israel advises, "Try not to ask a question that your subject has already answered. It discloses that you really weren't listening after all."

Smart Interview Rules

Editors Only's own Peter P. Jacobi offers us 13 interview rules to remember and practice:

1. Be ready and willing.

We must consider the person we contact as an important source and treat him or her as such by being humble and empathetic, unless we're dealing with a creator of skullduggery or simply can't.

2. Prepare and plan.

As a former Columbia Journalism Review editor recommended, you may well want to ask dumb questions. The best come from thorough preparation and planning, though.

3. Establish an atmosphere of trust.

The best interviews do not result from mortal combat. They come from collaboration, from the realization by both parties that this is a team effort to impart information to a sought-after reader.

4. Know what you want.

Ask yourself whether you want information from the source: "Can you tell me what this plan is all about?" Or to seek clarification: "Could you simplify this? Please explain exactly what you mean." Or for justification: "What could have led you to this conclusion?" Do you want summary material from the answerer? "Now, are these the key ideas you have expressed?" Make up your mind, and ask accordingly.

5. You learn when you listen.

Remember you're there to listen, not to interrupt or to argue or to pass judgment or to give advice or to expound. Your readers ultimately learn because you've listened. Shut yourself up during periods of the interview. See what treasures of information might accrue.

6. Question carefully.

Phrase sharply. "Do you think anything should...?" may elicit something quite different from "Do you think anything could...?" Avoid words with double meanings. Avoid long questions. Avoid generalities of time and place in context. Consider the power of hypothetical questions and those that limit options.

7. Seek to extract the best of his/her knowledge.

Don't be satisfied just putting your human subjects on the defensive. Encourage your partner in this endeavor to be giving, forthcoming, helpful, outgoing, sharing. Tell the interviewee you want facts and personal experiences and analogies and analyses and comparisons and contrasts and examples and, within reason, statistics, and all the expertise at the interviewee's command.

8. Record the interview.

Ask for permission. This will release you from heavy note-taking. It will also help to assure accuracy.

9. Think of it as a performance.

Yours is an important role. The right play on your part can -- indeed, will -- bring success. Human factors are critical in this give-and-take situation. Depending on how you feel and how you make the other person feel, you can create a mood that results in increased payoff. You have to make yourself and the second participant feel this is the most important thing you can be doing at this particular time.

10. Be curious.

Be consistently curious. Think about what the reader can learn from what you're gathering.

11. Don't be satisfied with first responses.

Ask again and again, and ask a third time. The interviewee may be resistant or simply shy. Continued questioning may loosen the tongue. It may also loosen the mind, resulting in answers that are more tellingly and more showingly phrased.

12. Ask parallel questions.

If you are talking to several people about similar matters, try for parallel questioning to see how the answers unify or separate.

13. Silence is golden.

Give your interviewee a chance to reconsider or add. "Anything you want to restate? Is there anything else you can think of to share?" And then be silent again, in hopes the other person will fill in the silence.

VIP Interviews

In an early issue of Editors Only, Douglas Mueller suggested that interviewing a VIP can add more zip to your publication. Here's how:

1. Make your pitch.

First, call the subject or a staff assistant and explain your mission. Assure the subject this is a chance to express his or her views firsthand. Emphasize that there will be no confrontation; one goal is to cover areas where the subject wants to be heard.

2. Assure the interviewee.

If the question comes up, assure the subject that you will correct slips of the tongue or grammatical fluffs if they occur. Do not agree to submit a transcript or an edited draft in advance of publication. But suggest that the subject may wish to record the interview along with you to verify statements made.

Discuss the subject matter, covering a list of topics you plan to bring up. And ask if there are topics the subject wants you to cover. You should be aware of these before the interview.

Never hand over a list of questions you plan to ask. The natural reaction is to write out the answers before the interview -- or to have a PR staffer prepare them. You want to reflect the subject's personality, and that can kill it.

3. Be prepared.

Like a trial lawyer, the interviewer should be steeped in the background of the subject and all aspects of the topics to be covered. Do your homework, using documents from the subject, press clippings, and library material.

4. Practice funnel interviewing.

Begin the questioning with topics the subject can answer easily -- e.g., background, history, personal information -- even if you know the answers. Journalists call this the "funnel" interview because the tougher questions are saved for later.

5. Allow flowing conversation.

Let the conversation flow as freely as possible. Use your list of questions, but don't read them verbatim. Take notes. They'll help you find key points in the transcript later.

6. Listen!

Listen, and look as if you're listening. If the answer is hard to understand or sounds too technical, ask, "Could you explain that?" Later when you edit the transcript, you will choose the best answer.

Edit to Sound Natural

If you've asked questions the right way, seeking clarification when needed, the answers should sound natural. Edit them to take out pauses, repetition, and speaking flaws. But remember: few people speak in complete sentences. Try reading an answer aloud to yourself, asking, "Does this sound like something a person would really say?" If not, use the subject's words to edit it until it sounds right.

Be a writer who has the ability to do an interview that brings the subject to life.

Denise Gable is managing editor of Editors Only.

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