8 Interviewing Basics

Key to getting good answers is asking the good questions

“I try to make it a conversation and to make it a conversation between equals as much as possible. The person is good at what they do, and that’s probably why you’re interviewing them.”
Charles Leehrsen

 

There are five key areas to focus on as the building blocks of interviewing:

Research: At a cocktail party, it may be OK to start a conversation without having any background information at all, but not so in interviews. The basics of interviewing start long before a single question is asked, for in journalism there can indeed be stupid questions. For the most part, they are born from a lack of preparation.

Familiarizing yourself with as much background on a topic or subject as you reasonably can bring you to an interview from a position of strength.

Sources: Anyone can answer a question, but how do you find the right person to answer the questions when you need answers? First, have an idea of what you need to know. Next, figure out who can provide that information. Finally, develop a relationship with that person that will allow them to share that information with you.

Questions and answers: You have done your research and have the perfect source, but now you need to ask questions that are relevant to the source and the topic, and to entice that source to share with you what they know. In some cases, it’s more than what they know — it’s what they feel or believe or analyze — and you have to get them to share in ways that provide facts, quotes and anecdotes.

Getting it down: Complex research, perfect sources, insightful questions and great quotes — but did you capture them accurately? That could be the rub! Getting quotes and facts down accurately is a key part of any interview, and it is far more difficult than imagined. For quotes to be quotes, they must be verbatim. But sources talk fast and their answers can ramble. They might say something as a fact that isn’t factual at all. Learning to take accurate notes and fact-check is imperative.

Right questions, right people: New reporters always ask, “Should I interview a student for this?” or “Should I call the university president’s office about this?” It is impossible to answer without knowing what your story is about and what information you need from that source to help readers’ understanding of that story topic. If your story is about why the university decided to raise tuition, there is no real need to interview students. If your story is about how people most affected feel about a proposed tuition hike, then you absolutely need to talk to students.

Are we on the record?

Once you start talking to a source and identify you are writing a story, you are “on the record,” meaning anything that is said is available to be utilized in your article.

A source can ask to go “off the record,” which means you cannot use the material they are providing, but it is being shared for your information only.

Off the record is not retroactive. A sentence spoken cannot then be deemed off the record just because the source wishes it. You as the writer have the option of whether to keep the information out of the story.

Sources can also provide information under these conditions:

Not for attribution: The information can be used with a vague title but not a name, as in “a White House official said.”

On background:  The information can be taken to another source to try and get it confirmed. “Sources have told me this. Can you confirm it?”

Most people can learn how to write an article in a given style — from news to features, investigations and immersion. But too often the foundation of those articles is weak. We don’t research subjects well enough to fully understand them. We don’t ask the right questions or dig deep enough with the people who know these subjects the best. We don’t let people talk and share with the depth needed to help the readers fully engage with the information that frames news.

“Dialogue is very important to feature writing,” Misti Crane said. “Figure out ways to be present during natural interactions between people and to not insert yourself into those so that you hang out and figure out who they are and how they interact with other people. And learn how to place that dialogue within the story in a way that helps your reader understand this person better.”

Beginning the Conversation

LeBron James first came to the Cleveland Cavaliers and declined requests for one-on-one interviews. But Tom Withers of the Associated Press was not going to give up.

“I didn’t badger them, but I stayed on top of it and reminded (the team) I’d love the chance to sit down.”

Finally, he got his opportunity at a turkey giveaway at a Baptist church. James was sitting at a table, surrounded by his “posse,” and Withers admitted the first few minutes of their dialogue felt forced and uncomfortable. But after a few minutes, James dismissed everyone but Withers, and the two began to talk.

“We got into deeper stuff with LeBron talking about his absentee father, the struggles of his mom, and finally I hit a chord with him where it shifted and he began recalling the difficulty of his childhood. He went back to where he was as a little boy — while he was talking to me.

That became the lede, when he closed his eyes and, for that moment, he was 8 years old again.”

If journalism is all about stories, then interviewing is all about the conversations that lead to those stories. It is no accident that “view” is part of the word “interview.” An interviewer’s goal is to see in words, facts and information, opinions and quotes.

The most successful print or multimedia interviewers see an interview subject as the most fascinating person they might have met at a cocktail party, but one on which they have conducted extensive research and already know what information they might want to glean from talking with them.

Where interviewers fail is they think in terms of questions. We must instead think in terms of answers.

It’s not a matter of crafting the perfect question and hoping to get the right answer. Rather, think of what answer you want or need, and then determine how to ask a question to get that response. Remember to think like the reader. For most people, the answer to one question leads to another question, and so on, until their curiosity is satiated. You must think for readers to answer their questions before they even know to ask.

John Sawatsky of ESPN, a Canadian author, journalist and interviewing expert, describes interviews as a function of the questions asked. He told students at Y-Press, a nonprofit Indiana youth-media organization, that a bad answer means there is something wrong in the question. In his view, good questions have two components — a topic and a demand. The topic must be narrow enough to get a good answer. He cites these examples:

“What do you think about the Yankees winning last night? (Broad)

“What do you think about the home run hit in the bottom of the seventh inning in the game the Yankees won last night? (Narrower).

The key to getting good answers is asking the best questions you can in a structure that compels your subject to want to answer as fully and colorfully as possible. Here are some guidelines.

Keep questions open-ended

Question Formation 101 revolves around the two major types of questions we can ask:

Closed-Ended: Result in one-word answers, often “yes” or “know.”

  • Do you like your job?
  • Did you enjoy visiting Croatia?
  • How old are you?

You need them for some questions that are more fact-based (like the age one), but relying on them results in confirmation of facts but no insights or useful quotes.

Open-ended: These questions let people extrapolate in their answers, and they provide more insights and quotability. A lot of times these questions take the form of:

“How did you feel…”

“What were you thinking when…”

Describe how you…”

Beware Leading Questions

You hear these questions in sports all the time: “Coach, don’t you think that play in the third quarter showed the power of your offense?”  When they say, “Sure,” that becomes a fact in your story. Your job is not to tell a source what he or she is thinking, but rather to ask questions that let them contemplate, and formulate thoughts and ideas related to your article topic.

The Writer’s Process with Adam Jardy 

“I like to have notes in front of me, and I will spend a day or two generally writing down sort of the big points that I want to get to or I am interested in. I will write out very specific questions that will get at a topic that I have identified as part of the overall story but the questions that I will ask will often start off very vague.

Adam Jardy

“I kind of script out to keep me on track or to keep myself focused a little bit. But I start out kind of vague and then depending on — getting a feel for the mood, the tone and how things are going — I can adjust from there, should the follow-up be this or should it be that. So I will often have not necessarily an outline but I have questions in a specific order that I think are the best way to get at a topic.

“You have to be very present in the moment. If you want to know exactly what you can and can’t talk about or what this person is or is not comfortable talking about, you have to be very engaged with how they’re reacting to what you’re asking them. You have to be respectful and I don’t know if I can stress that enough, no matter what you’re writing about.

“I did a story about [Ohio State men’s basketball coach] Chris Holtmann and where he’s from. He was on a very well-regarded basketball team there in his senior season. I talked to people who have never even met Chris Holtmann but who were around for when that happened. When I was interviewing these people you have to approach it from the aspect of this is incredibly meaningful and important to them and I have to be respectful of that. Just because a team making a final four in Kentucky doesn’t register to a kid growing up in Ohio doesn’t make it any less meaningful for this city in Kentucky.

“It comes back to preparation and it comes back to just understanding who you’re writing about and who your audience is. You have to understand that it’s very important to them and that no matter what you’re writing if they’re taking the time to talk to you, they deserve your respect and you have to make sure you give it to them. From that respect that’s when you can sometimes get into deeper, more meaningful, more emotional types of questions.”

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