When you’re interviewing someone, you’re in control. When you’re being interviewed, you think you’re in control, but you’re not.
Few things sound more artificial then reading a question off a piece of paper or an iPad to your subject, and chances are their answers will be just as stiff.
Instead, use your list of questions as a guideline, as opposed to a mandate.
Think about phrasing each question like you are sitting across from an acquaintance or friend at a coffee shop, and use similar phraseology and body language.
Rather than asking verbatim question No. 1 in the new major example, try, “I was looking through the major, and it seems really interesting. I wondered where the idea came from to put all this together as a major.”
Go with the Flow
Deciding the order for your questions is one of the most challenging and important interview skills you can develop.
The flow of questions needs to seem natural and conversational. That means recognizing your subject may answer your questions out of order — before you’ve even had a chance to ask them — or they make take you in different directions than you had intended.
Listen to how the responses are coming in, and see if there is a natural flow at work. Don’t just ask question No. 5 because it follows question No. 4. It’s possible based on the subject’s response that question No. 10 is a much more logical follow-up, or that you have gone into uncharted territory.
‘Typically, I go in with some questions prepared but … you’ve got to leave yourself some space for follow-ups, that’s how you get deeper, that’s how you get those anecdotes,” Zack Meisel said. “A lot of times I’ll write down a list of questions and then I won’t even look at them. Again, you’re just going with the flow and you’re going based [on] what they say and they are talking and I don’t want to just be staring down at my list thinking ‘OK what question am I asking next?’ They might have something interesting that they’re about to say that you didn’t know that you want to follow up on.”
There are few things more disconcerting than being asked a question and the interviewer is slumped in a chair, huddled over a notebook and doesn’t make any eye contact when you are talking. Try to lean in as you ask questions so your source recognizes that you are interested in the answer.
Just ask the question already
It is imperative to know what you want to ask, and then just ask it. Some interviewers ramble on so long asking the question, it’s a wonder the subject remembers the topic.
“I kind of call it the Charlie Rose syndrome where he asks this long, involved question, and he’s talking and talking and talking,” author Sarah Saffian said. “Basically the interesting subject he had on his show just says ‘yea’ or ‘no,’ and that’s the quote. It’s one thing if it’s broadcast journalism because you get to see the interchange, but for a print journalist all you’ve got is this one-word quote and that’s not working.”
It is easy to ask questions. What is far more difficult is to actually listen to what someone is saying, especially while you are taking notes, jotting down follow-up opportunities and trying to think of your next question.
It is imperative that you really hear the answers and let sources talk, without interrupting, until they have finished their thought. Only then will you know where the interview is going next.
Award-winning journalist and author Mac McClelland can always tell when a person is just going down their questions without really caring about the answer.
“You say something and then there are follow-up questions, and you’re thinking, ‘You are totally not listening to what I’m saying,’” McClelland said. “That’s not how I approach conversations with people in normal circumstances, and I assume most people don’t either.
“If you have the habit of listening to your friends when they’re talking to you, it’s the same sort of courtesy you should be extending to strangers, to actually listen to them.”
Follow-up questions are designed to allow sources to converse further on subjects they have broached, even though you might not have been planning to go there.
Remember that you need to understand the issue or topic before you can ever share it with a reader, so some useful follow-up questions will include:
“Would you tell me a bit more about that?”
“Can you give me an example?”
“How did you feel about that?”
“Can you break that down a bit further in layman terms?”
A reporter’s best technique can be to act far less informed than he or she may actually be.
The second you let a source know that you have some expertise, they can be inclined to jump ahead, skipping over key details (and quotes) that your story and reader will need.
“Follow-up questions are huge,” Meisel said. “That’s where you’re going to get the juicy stuff. You’re not going to write down, ‘Tell me about growing up in the Dominican Republic and playing baseball in the streets.’ That’s fine, if that’s what you want to ask. But when they tell you you’re probably going to want to ask ‘OK, were you using a baseball, did you have to use something else, were you using a stick as a bat?’ I think it’s something you just get better at with time as you get that feel for those secondary questions that get you the better details.”
How many questions do you need?
Journalists the world over debate how many questions to bring to an interview — if any. There are those who write questions out — usually between 10 and 20 — and those who write out topics to cover.
“Way back when I was on the daily paper at Penn State, I remember our adviser telling us to have no less than 20 questions no matter how long or short the interview,” magazine writer Sally Kuzemchak said. “I can’t say that I do 20 now, but I feel like 10 is a good number. If I need one quote for one graph and I sort of already know the gist of what I want them to say, I could go into that interview with one question, but I try very hard to have a list.”
The Bell Curve
Every interview has questions that are easy to answer (how long have you been married?), harder to answer (why did you leave the company you founded?) and all kinds of questions in between (let’s talk about where that idea came from).
The question for you is: In what order do you ask your interview questions?
Remember that this interview is a conversation, so what would happen if you shook hands with a new acquaintance and immediately started talking about their recent divorce, a lost job or the fact his neighbors think his or her yard is a dump.
Chances are that conversation won’t last long.
The same can apply when you are interviewing a school board candidate who learned she was unendorsed by her party for making comments supporting charter schools. When you sit down to interview her, think about how you can lay a path that will take you to the big news but will make her comfortable enough to want to get there with you.
Be sure to start by saying hello and asking how she is, or how her day has been. I don’t mean to be patronizing, but many a young reporter is so focused on starting an interview that he or she forgets to be polite.
Then we could try talking about the campaign and how it’s going. Commiserate that the end is near and talk about how she is feeling — tired, invigorated, etc. If you know a subject is delicate, acknowledge it: “I know things just got a bit tougher with the unendorsement. Let’s talk about that … .”
The point is, you have made her feel like a person, not just a source. And chances are she will answer you person-to-person, and not with rehearsed answers (at best) or defensive ones (at worst).
Brittany Schock of the Richland Source did a series on infant mortality, which included interviewing women who had lost their babies. She knew the order in which she asked her questions would determine how deep the women would get in talking of their loss.
“You don’t start with, ‘How did you feel when your baby died,’” she said. “Even before I hit ‘record,’ to get down her comments, we’d talk about life, the latest movie they saw. I’d ask them to tell me about their daughter, their other kids, what do they remember about when she was born and the craziness of a newborn. Then I ask them to tell me what happened when you lost her. A lot of times they don’t even realize they are uncomfortable. They don’t realize they are nervous. It’s just so natural a conversation.
“I work hard for them to trust them and relate to me as a human being. My goal was making them comfortable with me as a person before talking about precarious things. And I’d tell them, ‘Let me know if you need to stop,’ and tell them I was so thankful for them telling me this story, as it was going to help a lot of people.”
I truthfully think of every interview like I am playing a game of chess.
The key to chess is not just moving pieces — it is understanding how your opponent will react to your move and how you will react to their reaction.
The same is true in interviewing
In chess, if you make a move without thinking how your opponent will react to it, you will surely fail. Similarly, in interviewing, if you don’t think ahead to what the answer will be to your question, you may, at best, simply not get the answer you want or need. At worst, you may be faced with an uncomfortable situation that alienates your subject.