interview techniques

Complicated material

Above all, make sure you understand the topic. That’s rule one in interviewing, according to veteran newsman-turned-academic Merlin R. Mann. He says that if you don’t understand, you can’t explain it to the reader.

An environmental writer interviewed an entrepreneur about a maverick energy program that recycled, recycled oil. Got that? She didn’t. No one could understand the concept of recycling oil that was already recycled. Consequently, the article sagged miserably. Not to worry, the writer went on to become a lawyer and is quite happy not understanding re-recycled oil!

When someone explains a complicated process, you must go over the explanation until you understand it. Review your notes. Ask for definitions and metaphors that may make it easier for you to convey the information to your audience. Have the source draw you a picture, then think about using a picture with your article to aid in comprehension. Some educators say we think in pictures, so it only makes sense to reduce thorny explanations to a visual representation.

Writers use many approaches to get information and keep sources talking. When a writer doesn’t understand, it is best to say so. Naturally, some sources will lose confidence in the writer who appears weak-minded. However, better writers know how to turn this weakness into a strength by playing dumb. Many times a source will go overboard trying to help the dim-witted writer. Like the character Peter Falk played in “Colombo” TV fame, by the enormity of his courtesy, the police detective eased his sources into talking freely just by asking the same question in a slightly different way, always with a smile and a nod.

When using this technique, try saying a few simple comments to keep the source going. A well placed, “No, really?” may help. Even a non-committal “Hmmmm” sometimes works. These comments work more like interview filler than questions, but the effect is the same. It propels the interview forward. Also called the non-question12 question, this technique helps the interviewer sidestep those awful How-did-you-feel questions. Instead of asking survivors about the death of family members in a house fire, the sensitive interview could ask what the person will miss most about his family and the happiest memory.


Another technique that will serve you well when the topic is simple or complex is the use of silence. Ask a question and be quiet. Mentally count to 10. The pause will seem very long and unnatural. Stare at your source and wait. Just wait. Is there anything harder for a writer? To yourself, count “One, two, three . . . ” Finally, your source will repeat herself, or, more likely, add information–information that you may have not received if you hadn’t waited. This technique, like the active-listening technique, isn’t too be used all the time. Use it judiciously with some thought.

If you ask a question for factual information, but the source is too sterile, try it. You may ask, “Why did you leave the job?” The source may say, “I got a better job,” and you think to yourself, “There’s more to this situation,” and you begin counting to yourself. If she hasn’t said anything else at 30, you may have to pose the question again or move on. Remember, the interview is like a dance. You may be the lead, but your partner can limbo when you least expect it.


In the ideal, you prepare for the interview with research, interviews with secondary sources and some time to think about the questions you want to pose. Somewhere in this process, you will contact the source, and request an interview. Sources agree to interviews for many reasons, some noble and some vain. Some sources are public minded and want to educate others. Others see the interview as an opportunity to promote a cause. Still others want to promote themselves.

In most cases, you will have to make an appointment and meet at the source’s convenience. In some cases, the source is as anxious to talk to you as you are to interview her. Work it out, but try to meet the source in her office, or better yet, her home. Why? You can learn about the source and the topic by observing her in her surroundings. Be sure to be a little early. If you’re late, call and explain.

Dress for the interview. If the source is a banker, dress for the occasion. If the source is a landscaper, dress for the part. Arrive at the interview with enough time to look around the office, home or meeting place. An office or home is better than a restaurant or other public place because of the personal touch. A person tends to extend her personality in the decoration of an office or home. Observe and take notes on the wall hangings, the awards, and the type of furniture, rug and tools of the work such as calculators, lighting, tables and computers.

As you begin the interview, introduce yourself, state the purpose, take a deep breath and relax.

Begin the interview, but monitor yourself. Let the source speak. Avoid long preambles to questions. Just ask the question. Too often press conferences degenerate into monologues that put the klieg light on the interviewer. No good.

Instead of saying. “You were rather incensed when people protested at your film school’s opening night because of the content of the movies. Even though you won’t go into detail or tell us who was involved, could you tell us about what you plan to do?” Too complicated. The first part is an opinion; the next part is an interpretation that may be wrong. The final part of the question works. “What do you plan to do in light of the controversy?” Boom. The question explodes, and the source is free to answer it her way.

For the quick quotation or fact, the telephone is fine. For long-distance interviews, email is quite handy, but the interview in the subject’s home or office is ideal. Face-to-face conversations allow for more rapport. You can see and hear the person interact with others, sense the pace of the work place, and drink in the ambience of the décor. If the telephone is the only means to contact your source, you can still obtain that kind of valuable information. To duplicate this color-collection, the gathering of information from the scene, ask your source to describe what she sees, hears, smells and so on. If you think it is necessary, you may contact the source’s secretary to verify the information. Email also works well for this technique. The problem, of course, is that you can’t verify the information, leaving you at the mercy of your source’s ability to observe and report.

Whether by telephone, email or in person, many interviews call for the quick response. You need information, like a piece in a mosaic. When rushed, skipped discussions about the ivy in the potted plant and get to business, but make a game of taking a mental snapshot of the setting. It may pay article dividends later. Editor Jill Darling suggests that writers take a photograph of the scene to make sure the detail is accurate.

The notebook method

Bob Dubill, once senior editor of USA Today, tells the next generation of writers to keep a series of notebooks. One notebook is for the story that you are writing for deadline. The second notebook is a kind of Rolodex for telephone numbers, email addresses and information on the source such as the circumstances on which you met. Keep this information to help you with future feature articles. The third notebook is for possible stories based on the leftovers from today’s assignment. The observations from the office could be socked away in this notebook.

These days a Personal Data Assistant can help you record all these ideas in a portable unit, but some of us do prefer the old paper-and-pen notebook. It is more tactile, and, in some cases, easier to use in retrieval.

Tip: Dubill had other ideas you may want to consider. You may do only one interview a week, but you experience life every day and he suggests that all writers keep a diary. In it, writers can record the events and impressions that are memorable, but with a twist. Add a headline, a title, to the passage. It will make it easier for you to recall the time, and others will appreciate the summation. Among the benefits of the diary, Dubill says, is that it is a record of your unique life for your family to enjoy for generations to come.

Read more about 5 note-taking apps for journalists

Difficult interviews

As in the feature-oriented interview, the best approach is to find out about the person to be interviewed. Check with the editor in advance to discern the emphasis, the angle that will be used for the article. As a rule, regular contact with your editor will enhance your ability to sell the article. Practice this kind of interaction from the article suggestion, to the article implementation in a joint effort that is commonly called collaborative editing.

In rare cases, you may receive an assignment where you have no time to prepare. A candidate comes to town and you are assigned to meet her within a few minutes. In those cases, you have to be quick of wit. If possible, obtain a handout or press release in the moments before the interview begins. If no time permits, think about the five W’s and proceed accordingly. Ask the candidate what the most salient issues are facing the electorate. If it is an entertainer, ask her about the most pressing issues facing her or the act. If it is someone representing a cause celebre, ask her to state the case and what she would like to see happen. If all else fails, say, “Why are you here?” and “What is the most important issue, idea, goal that you want our audience to know today?” That blanket question just about covers it all, don’t you think?

In any interview, it is best to schedule an appointment with the source. However, many times secretaries and personal assistants screen contacts with sources making it difficult for you to use the telephone to pose a question, let alone make an appointment. For this reason, it is important for writers to be as personable as possible, not duplicitous, just cordial in making requests. When the contact will be regular, it is worth your while to get to know these important gatekeepers.

You may feel as if you are selling yourself or selling the interview. It’s all part of writing. Explain the purpose and hope for the best. If the source persists in dismissing your overtures, you may have to consider the ambush interview. Watergate investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used ambush interviews for sources who refused to be interviewed. This approach is a last resort, and to be attempted only with the approval of an editor.

In this interview, the writer meets the source when she is not expecting company. The writer may find the source on the way to work, taking a walk or doing some shopping. As much as possible, be polite and explain that you have tried to schedule an interview without success. Be sure to identify yourself and quickly pose the question. Emphasize that you are trying to be accurate and you want her comments. If she refuses, explain that you plan to tell your audience that the source refused to comment. Say, “Unless you give a more complete answer, I’ll have to use your no-comment.” As stated earlier, no one has to talk to the press, and that number includes writers, authors and freelancers. However, by telling the source of your intent to inform the audience that you attempted to get a remark, the source knows it may be in her best interest to say something of value. This approach can be heavy-handed, even mean-spirited. The goal is to get the information that is relevant for the article. That’s all. If you are uneasy about the ambush interview, tell your editor, and she may have some ideas on how to proceed short of confronting a source without her foreknowledge.

As with any interview, save embarrassing questions, the bomb question, for last. In the ambush interview, you may only get one question, the bombshell. However, a series of innocuous questions like the kind TV attorney Matlock uses before he levels his witness helps build to a point. A feature allows a writer to be more leisurely. Hard news sometimes requires tough questions. Regardless of the article, all writers must be ready to ask questions relevant to the assignment.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Michael Ray Smith‘s book Used with permission.

Download the entire book for free from our MTI Online resource center.

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

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