Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Art of the Interview


As a journalism student, you'd think I'd love interviewing. You'd be wrong. I love listening to interesting people talk, and I love acquiring new information, but if there's one thing in the whole world that makes me all clammy and gives me butterflies, it's talking to strangers. A lot of journalists harbor this anxiety. If you're prepared and know a few rules, you'll feel a whole lot better and be a much better reporter.

Do Your Research

You should try to be as familiar as possible with your subject. Find out as much as you can about them beforehand. This will prevent certain awkward moments from happening (like asking about a woman's amazing modeling career only to find out her agency just dropped her).

Write Out Your Questions

Make a list of talking points before you meet with the person you're interviewing. I really think this is essential, especially if you're nervous. If you get flustered or confused, you'll have a list of questions and prompts ready. Add in one or two throwaways to give you time to write-- this was a tip my news writing professor gave us. Ask a question you don't want the answer to so you can finish writing other things down while your subject talks. Also, try to make your questions directed enough that the person you're interviewing doesn't feel too overwhelmed. "Tell me a little about yourself" is not going to get the same results as "Do you have any hobbies when you're not working?" will.

Appear Confident

Part of the reason you need to prepare beforehand is that you seeming at ease will help the person you're interviewing feel at ease. If you're all jittery and fumbling around with your notebook and apologizing every two minutes, your subject will probably want out-- and soon. Also, it's unprofessional. Even if you're a student, it's important to believe that you're a professional-- especially if you're making calls to important people. People are more likely to be open with someone who seems to know what they're doing.

Your Interview, His Terms

Journalism etiquette lesson: always, always, always work on your interviewee's terms. You're to work around his. You should always offer for him pick where to meet. It may seem uncomfortable to go to a subject's home or his favorite diner, but you can also gather some great information from your surroundings. What does the place this person chose say about him or her? Read between the lines!

Also, even though you're working around what your subject wants, never accept gifts (i.e., if you go to a coffee shop, it's rude to let him buy you a latte). I know it's tempting. I didn't make the rules.

Dress Professionally

This is not the time for your Sonic Youth T-shirt.

Get Real About Rejection

While there will always be people who will say "NO!" to talking with you, I've found that most people are actually pretty willing to be interviewed. I did a person-on-the-street story for the first time last semester, and I was terrified that I'd be berated with harsh words and turned down every time I asked for a word with someone-- plus, my university is in a tough neighborhood, so I was super scared to be wandering the streets alone. That day I got rejected by one or two people who simply said "I'm on my way somewhere" or "I'm in a rush!" I was really afraid for nothing. People are way friendlier than you give them credit for. Plus, people love talking about themselves.

And when you do get rejected, don't take it personally and don't let it ruin your mood. Besides, you should always have a plan B when you're doing interviews, anyway, just in case.

Pretend You're With a Best Friend

The best quotes you can get usually come from just having a conversation with someone, not grilling them with pre-planned questions. Yes, you need those questions to keep you on track, to hit the major points, and to ease your worry, but if you can have a genuine conversation, you're probably going to hit the jackpot. Relax and really tune into what your interviewee is saying-- what really interests you? Even if it seems a bit irrelevant, take note of what you think is cool and steer the interview in that direction.

Always Be Honest

Especially when you're interviewing someone who's not media-savvy (media-savvy= famous person, not= the lady who runs the local grocery store), you need to be completely honest about how you're doing what you're doing and what it's for. If you're using a tape recorder, say so. If you're recording a phone call, say so. And don't say you're using an interview for your class project when you really want to use it in your blog-- even though technically, once you have the information, you can do with it as you please, be nice. Not everyone wants stuff about them on the internet or in a magazine, so ask permission first.

Have you ever interviewed someone? How did it go? What guidelines do you follow for getting a good interview?


Anonymous said...

I wrote for the college paper for about two years and the hardest part about interviewing for me was actually tracking people down. Usually I did sports, and when you send out an email to an entire baseball team you're lucky to get two or three responses.

Then again, I was pretty terrible at newspaper, so that probably doesn't count for much.

Zmaga said...

I'm a journalism student and I'm sure I'll be deadly afraid when I do my first interview. Thank you for this post!

Vanessa said...

Lauren: I can kinda relate. I did a story last semester on inter-college dating and out of all the people that joined the Facebook group about it or that people recommended to me, I only got a few bites. Sometimes it's hard like that.

Zmaga: I'm glad this was helpful! You'll do fine! I know I did way better than I thought I would, and if I can do it... :-P


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