Interviewing techniques

Ten top interviewing tips…

Whether you’re a trainee reporter, interviewing someone for a feature or for your blog, the better your interview, the better your article will be. Interviewing techniques However, doing an interview – as well as being interviewed – can be a nerve wracking experience. So here, as experienced interviewers, we share some tips …

Pick the right time

Don’t underestimate how long an interview will take. Ensure the person you are going to interview doesn’t have to rush off to an appointment. And make sure you also dedicate proper time to your interviewee – nothing is ruder than having to cut a chat short to make a call or go on another job. If your interviewee has little time to spare, ensure you work out exactly what questions to ask so you can be done as quickly as possible.

Phone or face to face?

Many people believe face to face interviewees are the best way to get lots of details from an interviewee. But if neither you nor the interviewee has enough time to have a face to face interview, consider that many interviewees might be happier with a chat on the phone – and reveal more about themselves that way. The reason is a phone chat is much less intrusive and anonymous than a face to face chat. Think church confessional or talking to the Samaritans – both of which are anonymous – and you can see why a phone interview for both interviewer and interviewee can be under-rated.

To record an interview or not?

Many journalists will these days record a whole interview – if you intend to do this then you must tell the interviewee before you do so that you are recording it. But we believe recording interviews makes interviewees and the interviewer more wary and can inhibit natural conversation. For this reason, while at our sister website Featureworld we always read quotes back to the interviewee, we rarely record whole interviews. However, we do use good old fashioned shorthand to take down what someone is saying. Recording an interview can also be very time consuming – it can take hours to transcribe what someone says. Even if you do record a chat, you should also always make notes as usual. Otherwise, if your machine breaks down and does not record you will be left high and dry with no interview notes at all.

Interview in a chronological order

The basics are someone’s name, age, their job and address. And then checking other facts – for example, the names of their children/spouse if necessary. Then start at the beginning and work through events in order of when they happened to present day. This way you are less likely to miss an important part of the story. For example if you are interviewing someone who escaped a house fire in the night, you will start before they went to bed that night.

Don’t ask too many questions

This might sound an odd thing to say but quizzing people with too many questions only reminds them this is an interview – and it can stop them chatting naturally to you. Most of us actually like talking about ourselves so there’s no need to conduct some sort of inquisition on anyone. Asking deep searching questions all the time spoils the flow of conversation – and the best interviews develop from simple conversation between two people and not where someone is under fire from heavy questioning. So, the best way to gain information from anyone is to really listen to what they are telling you. And the best question to ask is, ‘What happened next?’

Never assume you know what someone will say.

The biggest mistake many journalists make is presuming what an interviewee will say. While you might bear in mind a few questions you need to ask them, always approach an interview with an open mind and then be led by by the person you are interviewing. If you assume you know what someone will say – or worse, try to make them say something they don’t want to – you are likely to miss the true story. Worse, you might get facts wrong because you made an assumption and did not properly listen to what they were telling you.

Don’t cry with them.

It’s natural to feel sad and actually guilty when you have to go over a difficult issue with an interviewee – perhaps forcing them to recall a terribly sad event. But remember you are the professional there to do a job – which is to accurately report what they are telling you. Of course if you, the journalist have experienced a bereavement and you are talking to a grief stricken interviewee, you might divulge that information about yourself. But be careful. It’s one thing to empathise and say, ‘shall we have a break’ while they pull themselves together. But it’s another to get emotional yourself. Think of it another way – if a doctor cried when he gave a patient bad news how would that look? How would that patient feel? And incidentally, never say, ‘I know how you feel’ – because the truth is, having met that person for a few minutes, you don’t! The best way to help someone – and this is what drives many journalists to do this job in the first place – is to do the very best job you can reporting their story. That is why you are there – to be the professional to help them get their issue out there, to gain them awareness or justice. So, as with a doctor who is hopefully there to help cure the patient (not say to the devastated patient, ‘my goodness how terrible for you’, which would only make that patient feel worse) you are not there to reiterate what a nightmare they’ve been through, but help show them doing the article will be a positive way forward.

Be honest

Should you report something told to you by the interviewee as ‘off the record’? We don’t believe you should ever report anything that is off the record. However, if someone tells you something is off the record and you believe it is important and is something that should be included, then say so. And then explain why it’s important and discuss with the interviewee how you can portray what they are saying in a way that they feel comfortable with. Similarly, if someone says something that seems sensational – especially if this might be the main angle of your story – check with them that they didn’t just say it as a throw away comment. And if they are continuing on about a part of their story you know you won’t be able to include in your piece, then stop them. Otherwise when they see the final article they are going to be very disappointed.

Don’t press interviewees

Never press your interviewee with a certain question. Nothing is more annoying than telling someone something only to have them continually question, often posed in different ways, to you about it again and again. Accept what someone says first time. Remember interviews, even ones where people must go over something tragic that happened to them, should be enjoyable. For many people it might be the first time they have gone over an issue from start to finish. When you leave that interviewee they should feel confident that you completely understand how they feel, happy they have said all the right things, unburdened, not worried they have said too much or been forced to say something they didn’t mean. Ultimately a good interview should feel like the best therapy!

Don’t be afraid to double check

If you the interviewer come away and feel you have forgotten to ask something, then call back. The vast majority of interviewees are happy you have bothered to check and only too pleased to answer any other questions, even if you go back several times. It simply shows you are taking care that everything is accurate.

And finally… if you are the one being interviewed, there are things you can do to help. Ensure you point out any names that are spelt unusually, ensure you leave enough time so you don’t have to hurry the interviewer and don’t be afraid to ask questions yourself. For example, what angle will the story take, how big will it be, when might it be printed. Then sit back and enjoy the attention!

Do you have any interviewing tips to add? Have you had any nightmares interviewing someone? Let us know below…

Alison Smith-Squire

Alison Smith-Squire is a writer, journalist and media agent selling exclusive real life stories to newspapers, magazines and TV. She owns the sell my story website, which was set up to help ordinary people sell their stories to the press.

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