There’s not one journalist who hasn’t accidentally asked an interview subject a question that hangs momentarily in the air and then falls with a deafening thud because it was absolutely the wrong time to ask the question, or maybe it was the wrong question to ask in the first place.
Next thing you know, the person you’re interviewing is looking at you as if your head has just sprouted antlers. Nothing takes the steam out of an interview like a poorly researched question.
These kinds of problems can make writing an article an arduous task. Conducting an interview is like weaving a tapestry. No matter what you’re writing–news, features, or celebrity interviews–you will weave facts, people, and a story line into your article.
How can you avoid these problems? It’s not as difficult as you might think.
Establishing a rapport with the person you’re interviewing can really help. This is where the best weaving skills come in handy. If you’re interviewing someone, that person may feel nervous. Why not start off by telling a personal story about your own experience?
“When I conduct an interview, I start off by giving the subject a little something about myself,” writer Laura Collinson wrote in an article for The Huffington Post. Collinson is also the Deputy Editor of To Be Continued magazine and Marvellous Communications. She writes that although this may seem self-indulgent, it’s a good way to build trust; she searches for things she and the person she’s interviewing have in common.
Max Linsky, a professional interviewer for Podcast Longform told journalist Ann Friedman to give the interviewee a good idea of the article’s focus, in the Columbia Journalism Review’s, “The Art of the Interview.” Letting an interview subject know your intentions is a good way to keep the interview from being derailed. “These conversations can go off the rails quick — laying out the roadmap early lets you easily interrupt and move things along. Makes it feel like you’re on the same team,” Linsky said.
Keep An Interview on Track
One of the best ways you can keep an interview on track is careful preparation, according to Dorsey Griffith, Sr. Public Information Officer at U.C. Davis Health System’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Do your homework,” Griffith, a former newspaper journalist – and my former boss, told Decoded Arts. “Read their writings and review any other kinds of information available about the person and their work.” Before the interview, spend a bit of time familiarizing yourself with your subject, and write your questions up well before the interview so that you can spend time reflecting on them.
Griffith also tells us, “Jot down some questions that you want to ask that allow for open-ended answers; avoid yes-and-no questions.” Why? Because yes-and-no questions lead to “yep-nope” answers, and offer up no real insight about the person you’re interviewing.
How many questions should you ask? Think of a lot of questions, then whittle the number down. If you have too many questions, it means you’re probably not clear on the subject you’re writing about. Too many questions can also make you seem like a drill sergeant; and this is definitely one way to make a person you’re interviewing feel uncomfortable, as Friedman notes. This may very well turn a dynamic interview into a mire of terse and timid answers.
Accuracy Above All Else
Once you’re actually asking the questions, make sure that you understand what the person is telling you. Some people use rather complicated lingo, or jargon that seems to come from some obscure language. In that case, it’s best to back-track a bit to make sure you’re clear on the subject.
“When you don’t understand an answer to one of your questions, tell the subject that, and repeat the question until you can reiterate the subject’s answer accurately in your own words,” Griffith tells us. “This will reassure the subject and also solidify your understanding for maximum accuracy.”
Years ago, while doing a business story for a small newspaper, I erroneously wrote that the person I had interviewed owned the business I was writing about. I offended the owner’s sensibilities, thus causing the newspaper to run a retraction for four days.
It was a good experience for me, despite the fact that it was embarrassing. After that, I didn’t write an article unless I understood all things well.
When The Tapestry Unravels
Sometimes there are days that just seem like a week of Mondays all rolled into one. You just don’t hit it off with the person you’re interviewing. Days like this can make having a tooth pulled seem more pleasant.
So, what’s one way an interview can go wrong, and more to the point, what can you do when that happens?
- “When the subject turns the tables, for example, and challenges you, or questions your credentials to be conducting the interview, it can rattle the nerves and make for an uncomfortable interview,” Griffith says. “In other instances, you may not really understand a subject’s answers, which can result in inaccurate writing or reporting.”
Griffith thinks it’s good when the interviewee changes the format because it gives another insight. Maybe the person is skeptical in nature and doesn’t take things lightly. It may seem daunting, but you can turn the interview back around.
In these instances, be upfront with a person, Griffith says. You can gently remind them that they are the subject of the interview, not you. You can trot out your expertise and credentials (if you have them.) In this small way, you can regain control; and most likely, the person you’re interviewing will feel better as well.
Then you can weave the story and all of the threads will be in place.
Interviews Are an Art
Interviewing takes preparation and openness; but, like a well-made tapestry, a thoughtful interview produces color and insight into its subject.