To Get The Most Out of Your Interviews: Prepare….Then Pounce
I have a weakness for alliteration. Actually, it may be more apt to acknowledge an affinity for alliteration in my assignments.
So when Laura, an aspiring journalist, recently asked me to answer some questions about the “Art of the Interview,” a pair of P’s popped to mind.
To make the most of our interviews, I told her, we should think of ourselves as lions that prepare and pounce.
I don’t mean that we should seek to slaughter our prey, though some investigative stories do lend themselves to that metaphor. Instead, this is what I have in mind:
Prepare: Do your homework and know as much as possible about the interviewee as you can. Read prior stories. Conduct interviews with others that know your subject.
Corral any context you can about their life before you sit down with them (you will be sitting down with your subject, right? More on the overwhelming need to conduct face-to-face interviews later.)
Pounce: When they share something that strikes you as interesting or intriguing, be ready to go down that path of inquiry. Follow up with a question about that unexpected detail they just shared. All too often, people have a preconceived notion about people, or anything, really, and it limits their ability to unearth amazing material.
Think of it as improvisational theater, versus a scripted play. This requires truly listening and being in the moment, instead of thinking ahead to your next question as your subject is answering the one you just posed.
Great actors are wonderful listeners. The same holds true for journalists.
Some other tips:
*Ask unusual, sometimes seemingly bizarre questions. Ask big-picture questions. Ask nitty-gritty detail questions.
Who has been their biggest influence? What have been some humbling moments in their life? Most difficult times? What drives them? Whom do they most admire and why? Favorite authors, actors, world leaders? On and on, there is no limit. That’s what makes it so fun.
*Interview people, whenever possible, in person. Your next best approach is by phone, so you can sense tone of voice, inflection, emotion and all those audible cues that can open avenues of inquiry. Real-time conversation also enables follow-up questions.
Only as a last resort should you use e-mail or some other non-real time dialogue device. First, there’s no guarantee that the person on the other end of the e-mail is actually your source. And beyond that, you lose the ability to steer the conversation and to ask spontaneous questions that can be so crucial to unearthing information, particularly in sensitive or volatile stories.
Speaking with people in person is a lost art, so don’t let convenience get in the way of quality. Sometimes, you won’t have the option, but when you do, go for it.
And when you go, try with all your might to meet people in their environment. By seeing what is around them, such as keepsakes, photos and other details, you can ask questions and learn things you’d never even know to ask about otherwise.
In closing, here are some excerpts from the Laura’s interview of me. Ironically, it was done by e-mail, though it comes in handy now that I’m using it for a training column:
What qualities make an exceptional interviewer separate from a ordinary one?
Genuine curiosity…attention to detail…a hunger to plow new ground, even while doing homework to know what ground has previously been tilled by others.
What tactics have worked best for you? What doesn't work?
What works: easing into the interview, engaging in `small talk’ that isn’t so small, since it helps put the subject at ease and can help trigger interesting avenues of inquiry. Being respectful of others—their time, their feelings, any issues/baggage they may have based on past experiences with the media or others.
What does not work: being pushy.
Do you feel that people generally answer your questions honestly? And if it's apparent they are not, what do you do? What if the interview is utterly boring?
Honesty is elusive. We all shade the truth, or choose details that put us in as favorable a light as possible. So the key is to avoid relying on only one source for a story. Talk to as many as possible, to provide nuance.
Little is black or white in the world---there is vast gray, and the best writing comes out of extracting the various shades of it. If the interview is utterly boring, it’s my fault. I am the captain of the ship.
Based in the Chicago area, Matt Baron has more than 20 years of journalism experience, from community newspapers to national magazines. He leads training workshops, ranging from The Art of the Interview to Go Figure: Making Numbers Count, for press associations and other groups. He can be reached at 708-860-1380 or