Ten Tips for a Better Interview & Story

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  • 7/31/2019 Ten Tips for a Better Interview & Story


    Ten Tips for a Better Interview

    International Center for Journalists, www.icfj.org, October 2, 2007

    1. Be prepared! Always read up on the subject you are reporting about and the person you areinterviewing. Your source will appreciate your effort, and you will be able to skip questions that can

    be answered by an assistant, book or document. When scheduling the appointment, ask yoursource to suggest documents or other sources of information about the topic you will discuss. Theinterviewee will appreciate your interest and often share valuable documents before the interview.Make sure your tape recorder has batteries that work. Bring an extra tape as well as pens andnotebook.

    2. Set the rules of the interview right up front!Be sure your subject understands the story youare working on (this will help keep the interview on track). Additionally, the interviewee mustunderstand that everything they say is "on the record." It is best to establish these ground ruleswhen making the interview appointment. Although most government officials have enoughexperience with the media to indicate when something is "off-the record" or "on background," otherexperts may not understand the differences. Remember that an upfront clarification may berequired (especially when your source's job or life could be endangered by being quoted).

    3. Be on time! The worst impression you can make on a source is being late for the interview.

    4. Be observant! Observe details of the place and of your interviewing partner; this can add colorto your story. If you are interviewing people in their home or office, be sure to get a good lookaround and note what you see. For example, they may have some old photos that show them in amore personal light. You may start an interview with assumptions about a person and leave with acompletely different impression. However, this may be exactly what your source intended.Perception is a tricky business! Try to talk to others, colleagues or friends of your source, to get abigger picture.

    5. Be polite. Don't rush your source! It is important to establish a polite rapport and a level ofcomfort for the interviewee. Some interviewees, on the other hand, need a couple minutes tobecome comfortable talking to reporters. Even though you may only have 30 minutes for aninterview, you should not rush your subject. If you sense the interviewee is in a hurry, adjust yourtiming accordingly. Keep in mind, everyone is different. Taking the time to get to know your sourceswill prove valuable, especially when you need to call with follow-up questions or use them as asource for future stories. If the interview goes well, it may even go beyond the scheduled time. Giveyourself plenty of time between appointments to avoid scheduling conflicts.

    6. Listen but don't be afraid to interrupt when you don't understand!Keep your audience inmind! One reason you are conducting this interview is to explain it to your readers. If your subjectuses scientific jargon or explanations only his/her peers would understand, politely interrupt andask for further explanation. Never be embarrassed about not knowing something.

    7. Silence is golden. Sooner or later you will have to ask the tough questions that your subjectmay be loath to discuss. When you start asking those provocative questions, the answers most

    likely will be short, useless or carefully worded. You may not get an answer at all. If this occurs,look your source in the eye and don't say a word. In most cases, your opponent will begin to feeluncomfortable and begin to share information again. If this doesn't work, ask for sources who mightbe able to answer your question.

    8. Maintain eye contact! A reporter who spends most of the interview bent over taking notes orlooking into a notebook can be as disconcerting as a tape recorder in an interviewee's face. Whiletaking notes and recording the interview, maintain as much eye contact as possible. Learn to takeabbreviated notes looking down only once in a while so you can focus on your interviewee. This will

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    make the interview more like a conversation, and enable everyone to be more relaxed.

    9. Before your leave... ask your source if there is anything that you might have forgotten to ask.Perhaps the interviewee is burning to tell you useful information, but you did not even think to askthat question. Don't leave without getting a contact number or e-mail address and a good time tocall with follow-up questions. Always ask for other sources. Colleagues or friends of the intervieweemay be more knowledgeable or willing and able to speak to you. Thank your source for spendingtime talking with you before you leave.

    10. Review your notes right after the interview!Don't wait until the end of the day or later in theweek to review your notes. Go over them right away, while everything is fresh in your mind, filling inyour shorthand and elaborating on your observations. Skip that date for drinks with your office palsuntil after you have reviewed and organized your notes.


    Open-Ended Questions

    The ability to ask open-ended questions is very important in many vocations, including education,counselling, mediation, sales, investigative work and journalism.

    An open-ended question is designed to encourage a full, meaningful answer using the subject'sown knowledge and/or feelings. It is the opposite of a closed-ended question, which encourages ashort or single-word answer. Open-ended questions also tend to be more objective and lessleading than closed-ended questions (see next page).

    Open-ended questions typically begin with words such as "Why" and "How", or phrases such as"Tell me about...". Often they are not technically a question, but a statement which implicitly asksfor a response.


    Closed-Ended Question Open-Ended Question

    Do you get on well with yourboss?

    Tell me about your relationship with your boss.

    Who will you vote for this election?What do you think about the two candidates in thiselection?

    What colour shirt are youwearing?

    That's an interesting coloured shirt you're wearing.

    How do you feel?

    Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) open-ended question is "How does this make you feel?" orsome variation thereof. This has become a clich in both journalism and therapy. The reason it isso widely used is that it's so effective.

    In journalism, stories are all about people and how they are affected by events. Audiences want toexperience the emotion. Even though modern audiences tend to cringe at this question, it's souseful that it continues to be a standard tool.

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    In psychology, feelings and emotions are central to human behaviour. Therapists are naturally keento ask questions about feelings.

    Leading Questions

    A leading question is a question which subtly prompts the respondent to answer in a particular way.

    Leading questions are generally undesirable as they result in false or slanted information. Forexample:

    Do you get on well with your boss? This question prompts the person to questiontheir employment relationship. In a very subtleway it raises the prospect that maybe theydon't get on with their boss.

    Tell me about your relationship with your boss.

    This question does not seek any judgment andthere is less implication that there might besomething wrong with the relationship.

    The difference in the above example is minor but in some situations it can be more important. Forexample, in a court case:

    How fast was the red car going when it smashed into theblue car?

    This question implies that the redcar was at fault, and the word"smashed" implies a high speed.

    How fast was each car going when the accident happened? This question does not assignany blame or pre-judgment.

    Obtaining Responses to Suit the Edit

    In journalism, leading questions can be used in various ways. For example, a journalist might want

    a particular type of answer to edit alongside some other content. This can be good or bad, asillustrated by the following example.

    A hypothetical journalist is doing a story on the moon hoax theory1. First of all the journalist gets thefollowing statement from an advocate of the theory:

    "Photographs of the moon landing show converging shadows were they should be parallel. Thiscould only happen in a studio so the photos must be fake."

    The journalist then interviews a NASA engineer. This response will be edited to appear immediatelyafter the accusation. There are several ways to ask the question, each with very different results:

    How do you explain the missing stars from the Apollo photographs? Thisquestionleads theengineerenough toanswer thespecificquestion,while being

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    open-endedenough toget acompleteanswer.

    This isgood.

    How do you respond to people who say the Apollo photographs were fake?

    Thisquestionelicits atenuously-relevantreplywithoutactuallyansweringtheaccusation.

    Theengineerwill give abroadanswersuch as "Ithink thesepeoplehave got itwrong".This givestheimpression

    that theengineer isbeingevasiveand can'tanswer thequestion.

    How do you respond to conspiracy theorists who accuse you of faking the landingand lying to America?

    Thisquestionadds somespice withprovocativephrasesdesigned toencouragea strongerresponse.

    Of course the ethical journ