By Michael Sebastian [email protected]
Rediscover the art of interviewing and watch your writing improve
Interviewing is among the most basic of communication skills—it’s simply a conversation, right? The short answer is yes, but it’s so much more.
Interviewing is one of the most important elements of strong journalistic writing.
It’s research. It’s establishing contact with someone who could prove to be a regular resource. It’s quite simply the “gathering of information on behalf of an audience by asking questions,” according to Professor Ken Metzler, author of Creative Interviewing. And it should be fun.
Yet interviewing is often overlooked. Sure, communicators can write, but can they competently interview fellow employees, senior executives or even the CEO for the company newsletter?
According to Metzler, the three most important characteristics of the interviewer are sincerity, openmindedness and strong listening ability. Metzler, by the way, is professor emeritus at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. In his book, Creative Interviewing, he provides myriad tactics to conduct a good interview including these 16 helpful tips and reminders (plus our comments) that will take you from a good interview to a great one.
1. “The best interviewers are those who enjoy people and are eager to learn more about the people they meet—and who are eternally curious about darned near everything.”
Don’t beat yourself up, though, if the person you’re assigned to interview is boring. Challenge yourself to find the compelling content.
2. “It’s important that you communicate your interview purpose precisely, even dramatically.”
Metzler says, “Sometimes the explanation itself will send the respondent on the right track with little or no further questioning.” Don’t be afraid to reveal your enthusiasm for a given topic.
Beware: Don’t overdo the enthusiasm. You might look foolish, like Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch.
3. “A pattern for questioning—chronological, for example—is useful.”
Any pattern that will contribute to the smooth flow of your interview will benefit everyone involved.
4. “Small talk can help not only at the icebreaking stage but throughout the interview.”
Like a talented film director, break up the pace of the interview so one mood doesn’t dominate the entire interview.
Beware: “Be careful,” Metzler insists. “Don’t trivialize and don’t dominate the conversation. It’s what the source says that’s important.”
5. “Follow up questions are essential.”
Questions planned ahead of time don’t often get the most insightful or interesting answer. Sometimes it’s the questions that arise spontaneously during the course of the interview.
Tip: Don’t be afraid of deviating from your list of questions.
6. “Writers: Probe for anecdotes—that is, for illustrative stories that will make moments come alive in your writing.”
Metzler advises interviewers to “work to obtain specific information—the more detailed the better,” he said.
Try this: Read an interview by an acclaimed journalist or author and notice how he or she pulls detail from the source to color the resulting story. We recommend Studs Terkel, Bob Woodward or Tom Junod—they always include fine details to spice up their prose.
7. “Rejoice audibly and often,” Metzler says, “when a source rewards you with anecdotes, examples, quotables and metaphorical expressions.”
Basically, don’t be a bump on the log.
8. “If it is metaphorical quotes you want, try employing metaphorical questions.”
Just don’t mix metaphors or rely too heavily upon them when you’re writing. And make sure your subject knows what you’re talking about.
9. “Listening includes non-verbal demonstration—listening with the eyes, with smiles and nods, and by avoiding signs that you’re not listening (such as slumped body posture).”
Yawning is also frowned upon.
10. If something happens in an interview that causes you both to laugh, consider recreating it as a scene for your story to make your readers laugh, too.
But unless your name is Hunter S. Thompson—and it isn’t—do not make up anecdotes or stories for your article.
11. “Listen for a crossroads (significant decisions made in any situation) and epiphanies …”
Metzler suggests finding what nuggets of learning have come from these experiences.
Tip: Specifically ask: What did you learn from this?
12. “Avoid asking people how they ‘feel’ about _____. It’s the most trite, overused question in American journalism and sources begin to hate it after time.”
Also, when confronting a tough topic, avoid setups like, “People have said,” when really you’re the one saying it.
Try this: Metzler says a good substitute for “how do you feel” is “What were you thinking when ____?” 1
13. “Avoid using the term ‘interview.’ Call it a ‘conversation’ or ‘discussion’ or ‘chat.’”
We’re not sure avoiding the word ‘inteview’ is as important as not calling the person you’re interviewing: “interviewee” or “subject” or “source.” At least not to their face.
14. Don’t be afraid to drop names.
Not like, “I saw Kevin Bacon at the grocery store.” But, according to Metzler, “If you’ve talked to people your source holds in high regard, don’t hesitate to suggest that ‘Colin Powell says you have some good ideas on international relations …’ Or perhaps more realistically, ‘Jim Jones in accounting thinks your work on the Pensky account was brilliant.’”