This plan is for doing interviews in person or on the phone. An email interview, which is how I do most of my interviews since leaving paid journalism, is a different creature. I’ll deal with email interviews in a separate article. As I’ve written previously, the main difference comes down to the importance of listening.
Listening and silence are great tools and/or weapons for you to use as an interviewer. You lose that when you do interviews via email because they can plan their answers. On the other hand, that change is one of the reasons why some are now insisting on being interviewed that way.
My Eight Point Plan For Doing A Good Interview
1. While I wasn’t a Boy Scout, I do know and endorse their motto: Be Prepared. The worst thing you can do if you interview someone is to go in to the interview unprepared. I always cringe when I see people do interviews on TV where it becomes obvious the person has not read the book or seen the movie they are there to talk about. I insist on finishing every book — no matter how bad, and a few have been horrible — for which I do an interview or review.
For the purpose of this article, let’s say you are doing an interview with a politician. You’ll want to read other interviews the politicians has done. Read biographical information about the politician. Pay attention to what topics most interest you and — provided they fit whatever your actual assignment is — jot them down. You can’t fake interest (at least not easily). If you have a topic of shared interest, that’s always a great starting point.
Note also what questions the politicians evaded in prior interviews. Depending on whether you want your interview to be soft or hard, jot these questions down. Don’t worry at this point about the order of your questions and thoughts.
2. Write down questions you want to ask. Use them as guideposts, not as a script. Let me give a personal example. In my first years of journalism I was not only wet behind the ears, I was also shy. My wish upon starting an interview was for it to be over as soon as possible. As a result I’d leave and realize I never got answered half the questions I needed answered. I’d have to do another interview over the phone. What they took for persistence and wanting to get it right was really me screwing up and finding ways to cover for it.
I began doing what a lot of journalists do: I wrote down a list of questions and then asked them in whatever order I wrote them down. I didn’t realize until later that the order matters and that it can be quite good to drift from that list. Was this a good way of getting answers to all the questions? Yes. Was it probably frustrating for the person being interviewed that we’d jump from talking about his family to his college to his proudest moment with no real transition? Probably.
Pay attention to those topics that most interest the subject. It requires you to be more observant, but it pays off. If you can catch their attention and focus their answers, you will be better and the whole interview will become more interesting to both of you. There is nothing worse than a dry interview where nothing of interest is said. The reporter is bored with his own story and I, for one, can always tell when a reporter really wants to write a story versus having to tell the story but has little connect or interest in it.
3. By now you have gotten up to speed on the subject at hand and are armed with some questions for the actual interview. If you came across discrepancies between previous interviews and biographies, start the interview with a softball question. Sample softball questions: “How did you come to be a politician?” “Did you ever think, growing up watching Watergate on TV, that one day you’d be one of those guys?”
Save the “You said you are against gays but you yourself are gay according to your profile on gay.com”-style questions for later.
Why a softball question? It has three purposes: It gets the subject relaxed and comfortable, thinking all of the questions will be softballs (wrong!). It gives you a chance to get to know the person’s speaking style; and it starts the interview relationship off on the right foot. It’s the journalistic equivalent of buying dinner on the first date. Do remember, just because the guy gives you a long answer to that first question doesn’t mean you have to use the answer, short or long.
4. After one or two softball questions (depending on how many it takes to relax the person), start asking some of your prepared questions. Remember to pay attention to his answers and watch his body language. You can tell which questions he likes and which he doesn’t. How you respond to that depends on what kind of interview you want and how aggressive you want to be. Some love to hone in on the awkward questions to try and why questions about his past 18 wives makes him cross his arms. Others aren’t interested because the story might be focused on another angle.
Avoid predictable, easy questions at this point in the interview. If the subject doesn't appreciate your out-of-the-box questions, your reader will. There are only so many times someone can be asked about a famous nickname without getting bored and giving a canned answer. Instead, why not ask what nickname he wishes he’d had instead?
5. Watch for connections. When you find a topic he finds interesting, adapt your questions to that. If he keeps bringing up fishing analogies and anecdotes, then use that to your advantage and make some of your remaining questions more (for lack of a better word) fish-friendly. He will notice you are staying on a topic he is interested in and may not notice — or at least not be as quick to catch on — when you switch from softball to hardball questions if you do so while you are connecting to fishing expeditions.
6. Listen well and use silence as a weapon. Awkward silences annoy people. If you know to expect it, then it won’t bother you as much as it will bother him. People try to fix these awkward silences by saying something, and that something is often one of the best things you will get out of the interview. If the awkward silence comes after you’ve asked him a question about his father, for example, he may decide to fill that silence by saying something he was thinking but had not planned to share – a personal anecdote maybe, or a pointed remark. Work the silence.
7. Be like Columbo. Remember the television series Columbo? Yeah, I never watched a full episode or movie either, but I love one thing he did: He’d finish up an interview and just as the person was relaxing, Columbo would say, “Oh, yeah, there was just one more thing.” “Yeah?” The person would say. That’s when Columbo would, or in this case you, pull out the big question, the one that can blow the case out of the water or end an interview (which is why you’ve wisely saved the question for the end).
A Columbo question would be, for example, “You said you are innocent of your cousin’s murder. Would you mind explaining why your monogrammed underwear was stapled to his suicide note?”
Nothing so dramatic for you, probably, but it does make sense to put the nice questions at the start and the ones that could cause the interview to be ended prematurely near the end.
If he ends the interview, you can still write the story if you’ve gotten all the minor biographical details squared away first; but if you’ve just accused the man of being a hypocritical son-of-a-bitch who was no better than his thieving father and he’s given you the quote that will be the headline tomorrow, “At least I didn’t get caught,” chances are good you’re not going to be able to get him to stop and talk to you after that.
Work under the assumption that if you are going to ask a tough question, you’d better have everything else you’re going to need from this person before you ask it. Otherwise you might get a great quote, but you won’t know how to spell the person’s name or have his age or 69 other pieces of important biographical information your editor will want you to include.
8. Assuming you finish the interview on terms that do not involve using four-letter words, it’s good to make plans for any clarifications. I usually ask where I can reach them during the next day or so as I write up the article. There are always a few questions that come up as you write it up, from “Did he mean to refer to his wife as ‘that witch’?” to “Hey, first he said he served in World War II, then later he said Vietnam. Which was it?”
Often they seem pleased that you care enough about the truth, and the story, to double-check details, but don’t fall for the “just call me at work if you need me” gag. If you really need them, you can’t rely on getting a hold of them at work, especially if any part of your story is going to be negative. Insist on getting their cell phone number. Save these numbers. I treasured my list of cell phone numbers. Those numbers are gold when you need the person in a hurry, and the odds you’ll get to talk directly to the source, as opposed to a meddling overprotective secretary, are also better.
Now you have your information and it’s time to start writing your article. When in doubt about any answers, call to get it clarified. Don’t let the person take back anything he said, but do give him the chance to explain what he meant if it was something confusing or particularly contentious.