Last fall, as Aol prepared to launch a new system for collecting stories from freelancers (Seed), I was asked by the site’s creators to make a boilerplate instructional post that would help new writers learn the ropes. I was given only a topic: “How to Conduct a Successful Interview.”
I wrote it quickly and sent it along, and someone else edited it and gussied it up with links to a few interviews I had done — as evidence of good form, apparently. That article, it turns out, has become one of the most popular in Seed Academy, the collection of instructional posts for fledgling journalists.
When I learned that, I was curious to re-read what I had said. You’re probably curious, too.
Shocking, really. Did I really write that joke about murder? And did I use that hokey old Boy Scouts cliché? Well, no. No, I didn’t. Although I can’t argue with the content, the delivery gives me the vapors. If that post were Project Runway and Michael Kors was an editor, he’d instantly question my taste level and I’d be auf’ed. I’d auf me, for sure.
I’ve compared the published version to the one I actually wrote. The italicized sentences were grafted on later. It’s typical of publishing, by the way.
*Remember this the next time you get mad at a writer for putting something in an article or a headline: The person who you think wrote it might not have.
Jason Cochran is Editor-at-Large for WalletPop.com
Interview skills are important for any writer. No matter how well-informed you are, there will almost always come a time when you have to ask someone their opinion on a topic — and you want to do it correctly. An interview is also a good way to round out an otherwise dry analysis with a “human touch.” Interviewing an individual, and letting them express their thoughts, helps drive your point home — by demonstrating that there are real people out there suffering, enjoying, sharing, laughing, loving, crying, or whatever — just like you mentioned in your story.
Put simply, your job as an interviewer is to simultaneously stimulate the subject into saying things and to listen.
Ask the Right Questions
To get someone talking, think like a Boy Scout and be prepared. Do your research, then prepare a rough list of questions you think might produce the answers you need for your article. Then, when your subject starts talking, keep engaging them until they answer the question. That may require that you to re-ask the same question in different words. Not all interview subjects are stubborn, but many of them get nervous — especially if they aren’t interviewed often — and clarity from you is important to guide them to answer what you have asked. Sometimes, it also helps to repeat their answer back, but in your own words, to make sure you understand what they’ve said.
Example: Joystiq’s interview with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor
Listen and Learn
Truly listening is the harder part. As the interviewer, your mind is likely to be racing while you make sure you get all the answers you need in the time allotted to you. It’s tempting to interrupt the subject to speed things along, but if you can help it, don’t. Subjects sometimes keep talking to fill silence, and it’s in those moments that often the most interesting revelations are made.
Although you need to know what you’d like to get out of the interview, if you’re truly listening, you will be able to pick up on interesting things the subject says and ask immediate follow-up questions about them. You may find that the order of your questions gets shuffled on the fly depending on how your subject answers. You may also find that your story isn’t actually what you thought it was going to be.
Example: WalletPop’s interview with inventor Lisa Lloyd
It’s a Conversation, not a Cross-Exam
The best interviews are not cross-examinations, but conversations. You may get the best results if you front-load your interview with easier questions, and then ask the tougher or more sensitive questions toward the end of the chat, when the subject has grown used to you.
If your state laws permit it (check The Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press’ state listing to find out), it’s wise to record the conversation so that you can properly transcribe it. Most models of digital recorders can both be hooked to phones and or brought for in-person interviews. Always notify the subject beforehand if you’re recording the chat. You might want to say it’s so that “I get your answers exactly right,” since that puts many subjects at ease, but in fact it’s as much for your own protection since it will quickly settle any specious claims that you have taken anything “out of context.” It’s not wise to simply type their answers as you go or to transcribe from memory, because this often leads to unintentional paraphrasing.
Example: AOL Small Business’ interview with Five Guys’ Jerry Morrell
Other tips for successful interviews include:
• Take back-up notes, in the off chance your recording device flakes out just as the subject is about to confess to the mur-.
• Transcribe your interview as soon as possible after the actual interview for a more robust piece. Even though you have the recording to listen to endlessly, it’s tough to capture the “spirit” of an interview days after it ended.
• A face-to-face interview will almost always offer the best results. Nothing beats face-to-face social interaction for eliciting details. A phone call probably falls next on the order preference list, followed by email; going through a spokesperson; and lastly, using press release quotes. How ever you source your quotes, you should mention that in the story.
Journalists are expected to be rigorous when quoting sources. No editor, though, feels compelled to source his or her changes when they’re imposed upon a writer.