What’s The Point?
Why do journalists interview people? The basic interview question is meant to confirm facts. This is often where credible information comes from. But, the real story comes from emotions.
Traditional journalists should remain objective in their stories. So, we rely on real people to convey real feelings. Quotes that come from interviews should reach out to your audience in a way that a journalist often shouldn’t. These subjective and emotional quotes make your stories more memorable and impactful.
When your audience feels something, your story is more likely to make a difference. Your audience will carry the story with them. It will change the way they look at the world. It will hopefully make them more empathetic. A journalist’s words should make the audience more informed. The quotes should make the audience remember they’re human.
This lecture is not necessarily relevant in every single interview scenario. You will need to change your interview technique depending on if your interview is live or pre-recorded. If you plan to edit your interview, you will use different styles than if your interview is live-to-tape. If you’re interviewing a violent criminal, you may want to be a bit more careful than if you’re interviewing a crime victim. But here are some quick tips that can be useful in most interviews:
- Prepare. Research the person you’re going to interview. Look at their resume and their social media presence. Can you find a bio about them online? Look for details that may reveal an emotional story. Have they moved around a lot? How did that affect their relationships or family? Did they have a gap in their work experience? Did that create financial struggle? Or did they use the time to travel the world?
- Write a list of questions. Sometimes you’ll forget what you wanted to ask them. Sometimes the person you’re trying to interview will only give you one-word answers. A list of questions is a good back up to keep the conversation going.
- Before you start the interview, remind them to ignore any recording devices like cameras and microphones. Tell them just to look at you because some may worry that they’re expected to look at the camera (and that usually looks super awkward).
- Make them feel at ease by warming them up with friendly conversation. Be charming and human. Calm their nerves.
- Listen to what they say. This is harder than it seems, especially if you prepared and brought your list of questions. Don’t be so married to your preparation that you miss opportunities to coach them to elaborate on interesting nuggets of information.
- Swap verbal reactions with physical ones to avoid adding distractions in your audio. In a conversation, you often react with sounds like “hm.” If you plan on pulling sound bites from your interview audio, avoid making sounds when people are talking. This is harder than it seems and takes practice because it’s often polite to engage verbally in conversations while others are talking. Focus on making eye contact and expressing your engagement in non-verbal ways like smiles or frowns. If your interview will air in its entirety, this isn’t as big of an issue.
- Trade personal stories. Sometimes sharing something about yourself will increase intimacy and encourage the person you’re interviewing to open up to you.
- What you should ask during (non-live) interviews:
- Please say your first and last name and then spell it (you don’t want to mispronounce or misspell their name so don’t forget this step). You may also want to ask them for their occupational title.
- How did that make you feel?
- Do you have anything you want to add?
- Are there any other people I should talk to about this?
- Do you know of any other issues or people I should look into covering in the future?
Interviews Are Uncomfortable
Learning how to interview is uncomfortable because talking to strangers is uncomfortable. You’re not alone. Even the most seasoned journalists feel a bit nervous when they start an interview with someone they don’t know.
You may be inclined to hide your discomfort behind a wall of professionalism. Don’t. Let yourself be vulnerable. When you walk up to a stranger and start talking to them, they’ll feel uncomfortable too. Reporters are intimidating. People aren’t used to talking to the media. So be a real human and smile. Be nice. Be grateful. Connect with them like a normal human being. Find something you have in common to break the ice. Have a conversation. You will feel less anxious, and your interview will likely result in a better story.
You will get rejected, often. Welcome to journalism. It’s sometimes a knee-jerk reaction for a person to decline to talk to you. You could say “thanks anyway.” Or you could understand that perhaps a bit of persistence and patience may get them to open up to you. If someone says they don’t want to be interviewed, be polite and vulnerable. Stick around a bit and just talk to them. Maybe they’ll explain why they don’t want to be interviewed. Maybe they’ll change their mind. Don’t be rude.
The rules change when you’re interviewing a corrupt lawmaker, for example. Of course, they won’t want to answer your questions. It’s your job to keep asking. Sometimes you have to be aggressive because lawmakers have a responsibility to your audience, and so do you. But that interviewing style is for a different lecture. When you’re trying to interview a “regular” person, try nicely to make a connection with them.
In my experience, most people want to be listened to. Don’t treat people like props or quotes. Give them the opportunity to share what they feel. Most people will be honored that someone actually cares what they think. People want to tell their story. It’s your job to create an environment where they feel comfortable to open up to you.
An interview should be a mutually beneficial experience. In some instances, a journalist can play a therapeutic role.
Interviews About Interviews
The Turnaround podcast is a great resource for behind the scenes trade secrets and tips. Jesse Thorn interviews some of America’s best interviewers about interviewing. Here are a couple episodes that are particularly relevant to new journalists.
Audie Cornish — July 4, 2017
Click here for transcript
Audie Cornish is host of NPR’s All Things Considered. Previously, she hosted Weekend Edition Sunday and reported from Capitol Hill. Before coming to NPR, Cornish was a reporter for Boston’s award-winning public radio station WBUR.
Terry Gross — August 18, 2017
Click here for transcript
Terry Gross hosted Fresh Air since 1975, which makes her not only one of the longest-working interviewers today, but one of the most popular: Fresh Air is broadcast on 566 stations and became the first non-drive time show in public radio history to reach more than five million listeners each week. She has been awarded a Peabody, a Gracie Award, and the Edward R. Murrow Award. Her book All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians and Artists was published by Hyperion in 2004.
Susan Orlean — June 27, 2017
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Susan Orlean has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992; prior to that, she was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and at Vogue; she has also written for the Times Magazine, Spy, Esquire, and Outside. She is the author of eight books, including The Orchid Thief, which was adapted into the film Adaptation (2002).
Ira Glass — June 22, 2017
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Legendary radio host and producer Ira Glass guided This American Life since he founded it in 1995. He started working in public radio in 1978, when he was 19, as an intern at NPR’s headquarters in DC. Over the next 17 years, he worked on nearly every NPR news show and did nearly every production job they had: tape-cutter, desk assistant, newscast writer, editor, producer, reporter, and substitute host. He spent a year in a high school for NPR, and a year in an elementary school, filing stories for All Things Considered.
How to Interview “Almost” Anyone
Published on Jun 11, 2015
Mike Dronkers is the program director, music director, and mid-day host at KHUM-FM. Dronkers’ popular radio program has a devout following locally and nationally, and his behind-the-scenes work has earned him several national prizes, including an Edward R. Murrow award for radio documentary.
Through his eclectic radio show, he’s interviewed hundreds of people, including Grammy™ winners, Emmy™ winners, monks, authors, snipers, chemists, composers, lawyers, speed freaks, hobos, and toddlers. He claims that they’re all equally interesting.
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at http://ted.com/tedx
How To Skip the Small Talk and Connect With Anyone
Published on Feb 15, 2016
Kalina Silverman wanted to see what could happen if she approached strangers and skipped the small talk to have more meaningful conversations with them instead. She made a video documenting the experience. The stories she heard and the connections she made proved that there’s power in taking the time to stop and ask people to reflect on the questions that truly matter in life.
Since then, she has continued to work on expanding Big Talk into a movement that inspires and enables people to connect with one another on a deeper level.
One of the biggest mistakes interviewers make is failing to ask follow-up questions. This is especially unethical if a journalist is supposed to hold someone accountable. Most of the time this stems from the journalist not listening or not feeling prepared enough to push back after explanations fail to answer their question. The reason “Bojack Horseman” parodied this interview mistake is because it’s unfortunately common.
- How to interview like a journalist (no matter what your job is)
- Why Interview Anyone At All?
- The art of storytelling, according to the founders of StoryCorps and Humans of New York
Featured Image Courtesy: Interview by Stephan Röhl (CC BY-SA)