Better writer tip #5: Work on your interview technique, but only if you want to write great stories

Posted by Oliver Hogue on 11/08/2014

You’ve got a great angle on story, it’s exclusive and your editor loves it. Now you just have to nail the interview with your subject and the story writes itself. Easy, right? Wrong. Interviewing someone is hard. So, here are my top tips for conducting better interviews.

Carry out desktop research

If you don’t understand the topic area or your subject’s background, how on earth are you going to make the interview and therefore the story interesting?

By doing your homework on a subject it will help you build rapport with them during the interview and also help you confirm whether they really are the most appropriate primary source.

Prepare a list of questions

Researching the topic, your interview subject and the stories written about them is also important because you need to know what your subject has been asked a million times before in an interview.

Some journalists write down all their questions before they begin an interview. Others argue this is bad idea. You should certainly write down the very important questions in advance, but learn to be flexible, as information you receive on the spot may demand a different question to what’s next on your list.

Record and transcribe – always

The first thing you should do before starting the interview is turn on your voice recorder – after checking that it’s ok with the subject. This means checking the equipment the night before or at least with enough time to replace batteries, etc. You will also need to transcribe the interview before writing your story. You never know when your editor might ask for a copy of the transcript.

Listen well and let the subject do the talking

It sounds obvious, but many of the worst interviews are caused by the over-eagerness of an interviewer to talk rather than listen. Let your interview subject talk and let them fill the awkward silences. Many of the best quotes and greatest insights occur because the interview subject is given time to think and allowed to keep talking.

The only time you should ever really interrupt your interview subject is if they are talking wildly off subject and you need to bring them back to the question that was asked.

Pay attention and don’t rush – it’s not a race

It’s sometimes tough to concentrate during an interview, but you have to pay attention or you could miss out on a significant piece of information or an opportunity to delve further on something you weren’t expecting to hear about.

Never rush an interview or the subject. Ensure you have sufficient information and questions for that one interview where the subject has very little to say. If your subject is light on for conversation, don’t harass them, change the topic and soften the nature of your questions. Always use all of the allotted time you have scheduled for the interview.

Cliché questions are OK

If you are repeating the same tired, old questions that every other reporter has asked your subject – then cliché questions are not okay. But, if the questions are perhaps reactive to some unknown piece of information, then cliché questions can be OK. For example, ‘How did that make you feel?’.

Check anything that’s unclear

There is nothing wrong with asking a subject to repeat what they said for clarification. Just be polite about it. For example, ‘Sorry, I misheard you, did you say X or X? The last thing you should do is to misquote your source, regardless of whether the mistake is genuine or not.

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