I have been a journalist essentially my whole life. As soon as you’re old enough to gain cognizance of the questions you ask and what people’s reactions will be, you’ve learned the most valuable lesson of interviewing. As a professional journalist, there are certain things you can do to make the process go smoothly, yielding the answers you seek to craft your perfect story. Below are a few tips on interviewing:
1. Always be on time: Being on time is probably the most important thing to strive for, if nothing else. If interviewing someone in person, leave ample time for navigation (if meeting at an unknown spot) and have a backup plan if you get lost. This goes for if you are the interviewer OR the interviewee. I had a rather bad experience with a job interview this past summer. I was lost, late and nervous. When I called the my interviewer for directions, she verbally abused me for being late. While she was unreasonably harsh, that taught me a valuable lesson: In order to be taken seriously like a professional, you absolutely must be on time. It’s that simple.
2. Know your boundaries: This of course depends on who you are interviewing. Are you having a sit-down with a Catholic priest in the church’s sitting room? Or are you tasting tequilas with the owner of the new Mexican restaurant you’re doing a write-up on? Gage the situation accordingly. I always tend to work up a rapport with my interviewee before asking the “hard’ questions. Don’t be afraid to ask them! People generally like to feel important and showing that you are interesting in hearing their answers to profound questions is a great way to score some juicy bits for your story. Try not to be pushy, though. You don’t want to offend anyone.
3. If possible, interview in person: I like to meet with people one-on-one when conducting an interview. That way I can get the person’s general vibe and feed off of their persona. Due to time constraints and availability issues, I have had to resort to phone interviews (and much less often and worse, email interviews. Luckily I haven’t tried to pull that since college). Typically phone interviews are a little dodgier only because you can’t read the person’s body language and incorporate their essence of character into the story as seamlessly. Try to be flexible in meeting your interviewee at their convenience. It’s always great to shake hands and sit down one on one with someone. It’s an engaging real conversation. And that conversation is the one you are trying to have with your audience. Make it real. Make it count.
4. Stay focused: People tend to let their lives run away with them a little bit. Sometimes a runaway thought becomes a runaway story and before you know it, 45 minutes have gone by, none of which is relative to your beat. If you feel like your interviewee is getting the best of your time together, gently stir them back into the direction of the original piece. “It’s really interesting that you spent time building a community church in Trinidad, but I’d love to hear more about your time growing up in Fishtown.” It’s easy to let people talk and even easier to let them take the reigns during the interview. Remember to have respect that they’re opening up to you at all and try not to get irritated when you aren’t getting the answers you’re looking for. Perhaps it’s simply because you are not asking the right questions!
5. Research, research, research: There’s nothing worse than going into an interview blindly. Chances are you have never met the person you are interviewing with before. If you want to impress, know a little bit about them or something about the position you are interviewing for (if it’s a job interview). It never hurts to equip yourself with some talking points. “I read that your company raised $1.3 million last year. That’s so impressive for a start-up media company!” Just showing that you took the initiative to learn a thing or two shows that you are serious and well-prepared. Same goes for if you are holding an interview of course. People become flattered and touched that you are interested in them and have taken time out of your busy life to learn a little bit more about them. You already have a good thing going with them – don’t squash your lead by walking in ill-prepared on your subject matter. You’ll be doing yourself and the person you’re interviewing a favor when you can intelligently banter about whatever your subject is. This will lead to asking better questions and ultimately make for a great interview and a nicely developed piece.