Wick Communications

Interviews are a two-way street

In Writing techniques on April 17, 2014 at 3:07 pm

how to be interviewed

In a recent piece on the blogging site Medium, freelancer Rob Boffard gives advice on how to be interviewed. He makes a good point about something we should all remember: Many of the people we approach from day to day have never faced the business end of a journalist before. It can be intimidating to respond to barked questions while a stranger scribbles your answers in a notebook.

While Boffard’s advice to the interviewed is well taken, we might also consider our approach to interviewing folks. Here are some observations based on years of experience:

In person is always better than the phone and the phone is better than email. This is a distinction that can be lost on interviewer and interviewee alike. The reason you want to interview someone in person is that you notice stuff you can’t possibly notice on the phone. Is your subject tense, jovial, pained? Does he have the answers readily at hand or does he lean on a PR woman to his side? We are human beings; even in this age of digital communication, we respond best to a warm greeting and smiling face. You will simply learn more by speaking face to face.

Go to your source’s lair. Whenever possible, conduct interviews at your subject’s workplace or home or the place that is most relevant to your story. The reason is obvious. You are going to get tidbits that color your story if you interview the volleyball coach as she picks up the balls after practice rather than calling her at home three hours later. …

Try hard not to conduct email interviews. I’ve softened on this one just a bit over the years. I recognize that we are all really busy and sometimes it’s just not possible to do it any other way. (I let folks respond to a regular magazine feature by email. I give them a word and let them riff on that word. I want to give them every opportunity to compose their thoughts in that instance.) Avoid email interviews like the plague for hard news stories. In every instance the answer will be less candid and more managed and that doesn’t serve readers. If you allow the mayor to respond by email, make sure you note that in your story. Again: Please don’t allow sources to email answers unless there is no other way.

Take extra care with names. Nothing screws up a story like a misspelled name. Always ask your subject to spell his or her name. If this is a recurring problem for you, hand your source your notebook and ask him to spell his name for you. Then make sure you can read it.

Really listen. Many, many times, I catch myself in the middle of interviews focusing not on what the source is saying but on my next question. That is a terrible habit. It’s even more likely if it’s an important interview, because you’ve probably spent time composing questions and roleplaying how it might go. Stop writing everything down and really listen. Make eye contact. Ask her to repeat things if you didn’t get it down the first time. Expand on her answers. Sometimes it’s not appropriate, but when it is, have an organic conversation rather than an interview.

Anticipate the problem spots. Say you are talking to the Cub Scout leader. Twenty-five minutes in, she mentions that a previous leader went to jail for molesting kids. It was years ago and not the focus of your discussion. Rather than feeling awkward and slipping it in your story, tell her that you are sure that was hard on everyone. How has the group worked to get past that? Call out the elephant in the room, tell her it isn’t the lede of your story, necessarily, but make clear it’s a part of it. Otherwise she may feel burned when she reads it in print the next day.

Understand that there are interview pros and then there is everyone else. Take time to make your subject comfortable. You know that interviewing the mayor after the council meeting is different than talking to a tearful mother at an accident scene. Use your judgment and own empathy to navigate this truly human interaction.

What are some of the tactics that have served you well through the years? If you don’t comment here, why don’t you take five minutes to discuss interviews at your next news meeting?

Clay

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