Journalism students tend to fret a lot about learning the newswriting format. But learning to write a news story is relatively easy, and any experienced journalist will tell you that reporting is at the heart of what the news business is all about. And when it comes to reporting, there is nothing more important than learning to be a good interviewer.
So here are six important tips to keep in mind when doing any interview.
- Do plenty of preparation. Preparation means doing background research before the interview, both about the interviewee and the subject you will be discussing. Nothing inspires confidence in an interviewee more than a reporter who is clearly well prepared for the interview. On the other hand, walking into an interview cold, with little or no preparation, can be a recipe for disaster, especially for a young, inexperienced reporter. And it just makes sense that a reporter who is knowledgeable about the subject to be discussed will do a better interview.
- Prepare a list of questions. This goes along with the prep work mentioned above. Once you’ve done your background research, having a list of prepared questions ready will give you confidence and help you conduct a more focused interview. Having such a list can also save time for both you and the person you’re interviewing.
- But don’t be afraid to deviate from that list. What do I mean? Let’s say the person you’re interviewing says something really interesting and newsworthy about a topic you hadn’t thought of beforehand, one that isn’t on your list of questions. Don’t be afraid to go off-script and pursue that avenue of the conversation to see where it leads. Experienced reporters will tell you that the best interviews are those where your source says something really unexpected, and when that happens you need to be ready to throw out your prepared questions and improvise.
- Listen. This seems painfully obvious, but I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve watched where the interviewer was clearly more interested in the sound of his or her own voice than in hearing from the person being interviewed. Remember, the purpose of an interview is to get information – to learn something – from the interviewee. You can’t do that if you’re constantly talking over them or just not listening to what they are saying.
- Establish a rapport with the interviewee. Many people, especially those who are not regularly in the news, can get very nervous at the prospect of being interviewed by a reporter. So the best thing you can do is make them comfortable by approaching the interview in a casual, friendly manner, and by making the interview itself as much like a conversation as possible. For instance, before starting the interview, make a point of chitchatting about some unrelated topic, such as the weather or the state of the local sports teams. This sets a casual tone for the interview, one that will make the interviewee feel at ease and, hopefully, make them more forthcoming.
- After the interview, check and double-check. Interviews can move very quickly, and if you are taking notes it can be easy to miss or misconstrue things that are said. So once the interview is wrapping up, don’t be afraid to go back and double check things that the interviewee has said to make sure that you understood them clearly. You worked hard to build a level of trust with your interviewee; you don’t want to wreck that by misquoting them in your article. So double check anything you’re not sure about.
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