Originally published in Intranet Journal (14-Dec-2006)
The prevalence of user-generated content—both on the Internet and in corporate intranets—has created a virtual community of wannabe journalists. Major news events are increasingly being covered by both established members of the blogosphere as well as traditional media. Good bloggers (the key word being "good") are gaining respect and have evolved from hobby writers to trusted citizen journalists.
In the article From Slogger to Blogger: Tips for a Better Blog, I presented some tips on improving not only your blog, but also yourself as a blogger. Some people have a knack for journalism. And one of the fundamental skills of journalism—aside from actually knowing how to write and research a story—is conducting a face-to-face interview. An interview with known experts in a particular field can strengthen your story and provide you with colorful quotes. So, if you want your stories to be more than fluff pieces—and you're not 7-years old—you might what to avoid asking, "Like, you know, if you could be, like, any animal, what animal would you be?" and follow these interviewing tips.
Getting an interview is an opportunity that shouldn't be wasted with dull questions that have already been asked by others, or questions that can be easily found out with a little bit of research—you'll come off looking like an amateur.
As a writer you want to ask interesting and original questions that will engage your interviewee and your audience, not simplistic and commonplace questions that you can find the answers to yourself with a quick Web search.
You should already have done your background research before the actual interview. Don't ask a business person how long he or she has been in business when it's clearly stated on the business's Web site. If you ask a bunch of already-known questions, your interviewee will get bored and count the minutes until the end of the interview. Treat your interviewee as someone who can provide you with opinions and insights, not a talking FAQ.
Don't go into the interview with a notebook and recorder already in hand. Bring a briefcase or other professional looking bag with all your tools of the trade—notebook, pens and pencils, and voice recorder (more on this later)—and take them out only after you've introduced yourself and thanked him or her for meeting with you.
Start off with some friendly small talk to lighten the mood—and in some cases, set the mood—and allow your interviewee to relax a bit. This will also give you a good indication of the type of person you're dealing with and how you should conduct the interview. If the interviewee appears very serious, you'll know not to joke around; if the interviewee is casual and down to earth, you can let the interview become more conversational; if the interviewee comes off very shy, don't be too in-your-face and scare them away. Learning to read interviewees will enable you to adjust your approach on the fly to best suit their particular idiosyncrasies. This leads us to the next point.
Conduct your interview the same way you would exercise: warm-up, core routine, and cool down. Never start or end an interview with a tough question. You don't want to shock your interviewee with a difficult question right off the bat, and you don't want a difficult question to be the last impression they take away with them at the end of the interview. Ease them into the interview with some friendly chitchat, gradually segue into the more difficult questions, and then ease them out of the interview with some easy questions again.
Your interview will be so dull—and will give you very little in the way of usable quotes—if your interviewee gives you nothing but one-word answers. Avoid these yes/no and true/false type questions by wording them in such a way as to encourage a longer response. For example, don't ask, "Do you think the new security policy will affect the way employees handle sensitive information?"; instead try asking, "How do you think the new security policy will affect the way employees handle sensitive information?" The first question prompts a direct affirmative or negative response; the second question prompts an explanation.
Not everyone is used to being interviewed; some interviewees need a little prodding and guidance. They might not be used to having the spotlight pointed so squarely on them. Whether because of novelty or simple nervousness, the interviewee might not give you the best answers they can. The interviewer must be able to help steer the interviewee through the interview without actually leading them.
You're there to interview them so give them the opportunity to speak. A bad habit to overcome—especially when you're interviewing slow talkers—is the urge to finish your interviewee's sentences when you're under the assumption (sometimes a false assumption) that you know what they're about the say. Simply put: Don't do it; just allow them to say it.
No amount of note taking will be able to capture the tone, nuances, and inflections of a person speaking. A digital recorder (with fresh batteries!) can be very handy during an interview, and will eliminate the possibility of misquoting. You can also upload the entire interview onto your computer for safekeeping after you're done. A recorder will allow you to concentrate more fully on what your interview subject is saying without having to worry about writing down everything he or she is saying.
But not everyone is comfortable with being recorded. When you take out your recorder, hit record and ask them if they mind you using a recorder. If they have no problem with it, just leave it running. The purpose of this is to get their permission on record. If they say they would prefer no to be recorded, stop the recorder and put it away.
Some interviewees might be self-conscious knowing that they're being recorded. If you use a recorder, put it off to the side. Don't allow the recorder to be the only thing interviewees see in front of them. If you're interviewing the subject behind a desk with a lot of other things scattered about, buddy the recorder up with something on the desk. If the interviewee is sitting behind an empty desk or a conference room table, put your recorder next to (or on top of) a notebook, an agenda, or your briefcase. I purposely use a black colored recorder—as opposed those silver ones that seem to dominate the market—because it's easier to camouflage. When I'm given the opportunity to use it, I place my recorder on top of my black-colored agenda which serves no other purpose than to make the recorder less conspicuous.
It's good to have all your questions, prepared, ordered and memorized, but an interview is unpredictable. Don't follow your prepared questions like a script. If your interviewee says something interesting that prompts follow-up questions, go with it. Follow a new line of questioning based on the discussion at hand. When you sense that the end of that discussion is coming, steer the interview back to your prepared questions. Keep in mind, however, that you might have to do away with some of your questions or you'll risk taking up too much of your interviewee's time. Re-order your questions in your head and knock off those you can live without or you'll run out of time and lose the chance to ask the more important questions.
You should approach an interview professionally and in an impartial manner. This doesn't mean you should shy away from asking tough questions, it just means you shouldn't go into an interview looking for a fight even before the first question is asked. Going into an interview with your own agenda—to put the interviewee on the spot or make them look bad because you think it will make a good story—means you're going into the interview with a very narrow mind. You won't be open to what the interviewee has to say and are justing waiting for your opportunity to ask the knockout question.
You need to exude confidence in an interview. You can't expect interviewees to answer your tougher questions if it looks like you're not comfortable asking them. You need to let the interviewee know that you're running the interview, not the other way around. If your interviewee sees that you can be easily intimidated, he or she will end up pushing you around and will eventually take control of the interview. When this happens, they will start telling you only what they want you to hear rather than you asking them what you what to know.
The art of interviewing takes practice. You might be nervous your first couple of times but with experience you'll get the hang of it. Interviewing—unlike the solitary act of writing the story itself—is all about your ability to interact with another person, and your ability to draw information out of them. Interviewees are giving you their time; they're helping you write your story. Even if you completely disagree with your interviewee's opinions, you can still challenge them while remaining respectful and professional. Always remember that there's a difference between friendly sparring and trash-talking.
Copyright © 2006 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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