The journalist’s job is two-fold: Extract the maximum amount of story from a subject, then present and promote that story in such a way so as to give justice to the subject and compel audiences to take action. No small feat, right? Fear not, for our savvy editor Amanda Woodard is here to help you perfect your interviewing technique.
For any journalist approaching an interview, whether it’s with a film director, a financial planner, or some fine fellow or femme fatale in between, there’s no substitute for researching your interviewee – and then researching some more.
Do your research. Find your purpose
I begin by reading or viewing anything and everything by the interviewee or about the interviewee, even if it means going back in time to see how people’s opinions have changed over the years. If you are interviewing someone about what their organisation is doing, then treat the organisation like a person and find out as much as you can about it from all sides. This includes content, government, unions, employees, rivals, overseas viewpoints … really, everything. This is your background.
The foreground is inhabited by the reason for your interview. This might be because the person is new in a role, has done or said something extraordinary, their business has done something innovative, they have negotiated a difficult period or perhaps all of these.
Hows, whys and strait-jackets
Once you know your purpose, the questions present themselves and are a means of discovery to reveal the story. This story has a beginning, a middle and an end – and so should the questions. There are the facts to be established, of course, but also the reasons why events occurred, the history leading up to those events, the decisions that were reached and the responses to those. Remember: The hows and the whys will often garner the most compelling responses.
Although questions are the framework for an interview, they are not a strait-jacket there to constrict the dialogue; rather, the best interviews are more like the ebb and flow of a great conversation. Your questions are there to keep a structure and make sure that your interviewee doesn’t wander far off the issue at hand. More often than not, the most revealing answers come through follow-up questions that aren’t pre-planned.
Silence is golden
People generally love talking about themselves once they get going, which brings me to another important point: The interview is about them. It’s not about you or a place to share your experiences. It’s very good to exhibit empathy, but that doesn’t extend to contributing the amusing story about dropping your boss’s phone down the drain to show that you understand calamity.
If you are genuinely curious about people (and, frankly, any journalist who isn’t should probably be working in another profession), then listening skills will be second nature. They are key to the success of the interview with spaces and pauses that allow the interviewee to be reflective and introspective. Don’t interrupt all the time with the next question to fill a gap. Thoughtful questions are more likely to elicit a relaxed and open response.
Should you face-off?
How you record the interview is up to individual preference, but meeting face-to-face is always richer than over the phone. Written responses to questions should generally be avoided as you rarely get the authentic ‘voice’ when someone is speaking. The only time they work is for short Q&As with very specific questions. It’s an obvious point, but the more you can make eye contact with the interviewee, the more likely you are to be empathetic and elicit good responses to the questions.
The golden nugget: amplification and promotion
Once the interview has been crafted into beautiful prose with accurate and insightful quotes, make the most of your ‘golden nugget’. Tease out the best quotes from the full transcript and post these to Twitter, offering shout-outs to your interviewee and any organisations mentioned. This will draw moths to the full flame of your article. As well as this, extract quotes or a paragraph to post on other social media platforms such as Linkedin, with links to the full article.
If the interviewee has said something significant that has wider news interest, then this is an opportunity to get the national media to amplify your content. Additionally, think of other industries and sectors that might be interested in topics that have been covered in the interview and connect with them via social media, or contact them directly to discuss amplifying your content on their website.
Last but not least, video is becoming more and more popular – as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Consider making a short three-minute promotion interview as a teaser for your longer-form content. This opens up the opportunity to post on sites such as Instagram and YouTube, and it ensures that golden nugget stays bright, shiny and admired by as many people as possible.