• Interviewing

Do you know how to talk to people?

Of course, you say. I do it every day.

Yes, but do you REALLY know how to talk to people? Do you know how to listen? How to ask questions? How to follow up those questions with other questions?

Learning how to talk with people so they will relax and give you information is one of the journalist’s most important skills.

Many professional journalists and journalism educators complain that high school and college students are bad interviewers because they simply do not know how to talk to people. Bob Steele, a member of the faculty at the Poynter Institute, wrote an article about interviewing in 2003 that drew a number of pointed comments about students who wanted to become journalists:

“ . . . . students often can’t even, like, form a coherent sentence.”

“ . . . . students are afraid of interviewing. I agree — but not because they believe it to be an enterprise of rudeness.

. . . . I’m continually amazed that the lack of basic social and conversational skills among many, if not most, of my students.

Before I can teach interviewing, I have to teach them how to have civil conversations that actually use full sentences. I’ve even had to bring a telephone into a classroom and teach them how to use it in a professional manner.

Their difficulties in conversational skills and inexperience in critical thinking makes teaching interviewing a frustrating experience.”

“The art of interviewing is simply not taught in most journalism programs. It is not something you’re born with. It is a craft that must be continually honed. The best professional experience I had was working for an executive producer who reviewed the interviews I field produced and gave me tips on everything from the length of my questions to the ethical nature of my approach.”

Are you one of those students who can’t form, like, a coherent sentence?

Interviewing people is one of the most important things that a journalists do. Interviewing is the way that they most of their information for news stories. They don’t watch television, and they don’t look it up on the Internet. They talk to people.

Journalists have to overcome whatever shyness and insecurities they have about talking to people. They have to gain the confidence that people will help them out if those people are asked by someone who is intelligent, courteous and respectful.

Good interviewing begins with good conversation.

It should be generally enjoyable to all of those involved because information and ideas are exchanged. But the journalistic interview goes beyond good conversation because journalists are seeking information and asking questions that will elicit that information.

Good interviews are based on two things: the overall intelligence and demeanor of the reporter and the research that the reporter has done.

Journalists should know as much as possible about the person they are interviewing and about the topic of discussion as possible. Sometimes students or beginning journalists believe they don’t have to do much research because the person they are interviewing will tell them what they need to know or explain everything to them. Interviewees, then, are surprised and often irritated because they realize they are talking to someone who knows very little. The person being interviewed can feel like the journalist is lazy and simply wasting his or her time.

Sometimes, of course, with breaking news or deadline pressure, there isn’t time to do much research before an interview has to be conducted. In those cases, journalists have to rely on their native intelligence and experience and on the demeanor they have developed to draw people into conversations.

As you learn and practice the art of interviewing, here are some things to remember:

  • Prepare. Write out your questions. What information are you going to need to write a good story? Think about what your audience will want to know.
  • Stay flexible. The interview may go in a different direction than what you planned. Be ready to respond to that.
  • If you have to ask difficult questions, wait until the interview is nearly over.
  • Note the surroundings and the characteristics of the interviewee.
  • Develop a professional appearance and demeanor. Dress so that you represent yourself and your news organization well. Introduce yourself, shake hands if appropriate, and tell why you are there, even if the interviewee knows the reason.
  • Learn how to ask questions – and then stop talking. Try to make your questions as short as possible, and don’t be afraid to wait for an answer.
  • Listen, listen, listen. Concentrate on what the interviewee has to say with everything you can muster. Listen for the substance of what he or she is saying, but also remember that you need words and sentences you can put into direct quotations.
  • Housekeeping duties. Ask your interview how to spell his or her name (always), and also ask for the person’s exact title. Ask for permission to call back if there is information that you need.
  • The key to a good interview is being interested in what the interviewee has to say. and being confident that the interviewee will tak to you.

Interviewing is a skill that can be developed and practiced immediately. Don’t wait until you feel more prepared. Start right now.


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