The art of interviewing

This week we are going to look at getting the human element in your stories.

Interviews are a fundamental part of all journalism. Much of what we write about is how humans live together and the conflicts and interactions we have.

The quotes you get from interview are used in two main ways in a story:

  • To back the ideas you have in the story, by having someone with direct experience or authority on the topic say what they think.
  • To add human interest by showing how the topic affects real people in their lives.

Either way, having strong interviews is critical to getting a good story.  So tonight we are going to look at some of the skills you need to get those quotes.

Prepare your questions beforehand

It is important to be well prepared before you approach people. Do your background research and know what you are talking about.

That includes having a clear focus for your story, so you can help focus your questions as well.

It is also important to write up a short list of questions to get the most out of your interviews and help you keep them on track.

At the beginning of the interview be sure to ask for basic information like the person’s name, and other details that are relevant to the story.

Those details might be where they live, what they do for a living, their official title, their education, etc.

Start with some simple question also can help you and the person you are interviewing relax.

Most people have never been interviewed by a journalist and get tense because they don’t know what to expect.

Use your list of questions to keep the interview short and focused. You don’t want to allow the conversation to wander off topic because you’ll have an hour of tape to transcribe.

Also, if you lose focus, you risk distracting or confusing your subject, or allowing him or her to answer only part of a complex question.

Using open-ended questions

Avoid questions that can be answered with a single short answer like yes or no, because they won’t provide you with much useful material for your story.

If you do use one, be sure to follow it up with an open-ended question that encourages meaningful answer using the subject’s own knowledge or feelings.

Open-ended questions typically begin with words such as “Why” and “How”, or phrases such as “Tell me about…”.

Open-ended questions also tend to be more objective and less leading than closed-ended questions.

Often they are not technically a question, but a statement that implicitly asks for a response.

Imagine you were doing a story about the impact of the HST on food cart vendors.

A closed-ended question: “Do you like the HST?”

An open-ended question would be: “How does the HST impact you?

How do you feel?

Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) open-ended question is “How does this make you feel?” or some variation thereof.

This has become a cliché in both journalism and therapy. The reason it is so widely used is that it’s so effective.

In journalism, stories are all about people and how they are affected by events. Audiences want to experience the emotion.

Even though modern audiences tend to cringe at this question, it’s so useful that it continues to be a standard tool.

Remember, you don’t have to put your questions in the story!

Avoid Leading Questions

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

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

For example: a leading question would be: “Why don’t businesses like the HST .”

A better question would be: “How do you feel about the HST?”

Try to come up with better version of this question: “Do you think tuition fees are far too high?”

Also avoid asking questions that have a long preamble, where you are really just telling the person what you think. That is not your job as a reporter.

For example: “I think Vancouver’s transit system is a mess because I can never get where I am going and the buses never run on time and its all badly run. Why do you think the system is so terrible?”

Avoid double-barreled questions like: “Why is the unemployment rate rising and what is your government doing to fix it?”

The person will choose to answer the question they like the most and avoid the tough questions.

Instead breakdown complicated questions into shorter, simpler questions.

Setting up up a good interview

First find a good location.

Avoid Starbucks! It’s often easiest to suggest coffee shop but if there is any way you can interview in a place that has some relevance to the story or your subject you’ll have much greater success.

Not only because you’ll gain a further sense of context, people are often more comfortable (and open) when they’re in a familiar place or what feels like “their territory.”

Ask to meet at your subject’s house, work, or the location of an incident relevant to the story. Even meeting at the interviewee’s favorite restaurant is more interesting than a Starbucks.

Be conversational without having a conversation. Keep the interview informal and casual, not overly scripted, and go with the flow, allowing your subject to switch directions –- as long as you remain in control of the interview and are prepared to steer it back to your topic as needed.

This is probably the most challenging, but also the most important interview skill you can develop.

You want to strike a balance between a conversation (which helps make your subject feel comfortable and aids candor) and getting the job done.

Recording the interview

To record the answers you have two basic options, write it down or record it.

iPhones have a great voice recorder built in. You can even edit the interview and email it to yourself and post it on your blog as a multimedia extra.

You can also video record the interview with most phones, with or without a picture of the person, or use a pocket digital recorder.

Try not a to make a big deal about the recorder or people can get nervous.

Even though you are recording the interview, always keep a notebook handy and use it to jot down the time on your recorder when you hear a good quote.

You can also use the notebook to record new questions or follow-up questions that pop into your head while your subject is speaking.

You might also want to write down physical details about your environment and your subject’s appearance, facial expressions and voice, statistics or facts that strike you.

But be sure to look up from your notebook and maintain eye contact.

Listen to the answers and follow up

You don’t have to stick to the script — listen to the answers and probe further when you hear something interesting before moving on to your prepared questions.

An inexperienced interviewer asks a question, notes the response then moves on to the next question.

If you ask, “Why don’t you like tolling on bridges?” and they say “Because it is expensive,” Then ask, “How do you think we should pay for new bridges then?”

This is a tricky skill to learn, but really sharp interviewers will ask follow up-questions.

But often it is during a follow-up question that the right quote falls into your lap.

A follow-up can also involve a non-question, like a sympathetic response or a gesture of surprise or admiration.

Keeping the interview rolling

The flow of questions needs to seem natural and conversational, don’t spin your subject off on a completely different topic just because that’s the next question on your list.

Think about the answers you are getting and use your list of questions as a list of reminders, rather than a script.

Be a little annoying – Don’t be afraid to relentlessly revisit a question or topic that you feel hasn’t been properly addressed by the interviewee.

Sometimes people need time to warm up to you or a topic, or will respond better if your question is worded differently. Keep trying.

Empower them – A great question to ask if you don’t fully understand the perspective of your interviewee is “what is your ideal solution/resolution?”

Obviously this only works in certain circumstances, but when appropriate it can help clarify a person’s point of view or opinion.

Work them up. Another great question is “Why do you care about this issue?” This can be an effective way to get a strong and emotional quote about why the topic you’re covering is so important.

You can also ask for the turning point in a story, the moment when everything changed or catalyzed. This can help you shape the narrative of your story as well.

Endure awkward silences. I know this is totally counter-intuitive. My instinct is to keep chattering and asking questions to keep people feeling comfortable, but sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with sensitive subjects, you need to shut up and wait.

Ask your question, let them give you the rehearsed and generic answer, then sit there quietly and see what comes next. You’d be amazed how often this technique yields powerful results.

Sometime interviews just seem to be harder than you expect.

The person seems confused by your questions, or maybe you started of with bad information about who the person is.

Sometime interviews can be frustrating because the people you are talking to don’t understand what you need.

Ask for what you need. For the most part people want to be helpful and you just need to tell them how they can.

You can say, “Listen, I really need a quote from you encapsulating your feelings on this issue,” or “I really need you to walk me through the chronology of this,” or even, “I really need you to take me to a location that is relevant to this issue so I can set a scene.”

Many interview subjects get a kick out of having you “pull back the curtain” a little and tell them about your process.

Wrapping it up

Always ask the person if they have any other comments on the issue before wrapping up the interview. This gives them the chance to raise an issue you may have overlooked.

Sometimes it pays to be sneaky. You can put your notebook away, but leave your tape recorder running, making it appear like the interview is over.

Sometimes people say the most revealing or intimate things when they feel that they’re out of the “hot seat.”  If they don’t say “off the record,” it’s all game.

Get it down on paper

Afterwards, put on your headphones and play it back as you write out the best parts of it accurately to include in your story.

When picking quotes, look for lines that serve either add authority and credibility to your story or lines that illustrate the impact of the issue on the individual, since these will resonate the most with readers.

Frequently you’ll find people speak in fragments rather than proper sentences. People often speak in half sentences, or change direction in the middle of a sentence when they are being interviewed.

It is acceptable to clean up small grammatical mistakes in a sentence, but it is not acceptable to start rewriting sentences or fusing them together to make a single sentence that the person never said.

It a quote is really unreadable, it may still be useful, but you may have to paraphrase it without quotation marks in your story.



About Mike Laanela

Mike Laanela is journalist, photographer and instructor based in Vancouver, B.C.
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