10 journalism tips to help communicators nail interviews

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When I worked as a journalist, I had to interview people all the time. It was my favorite part of the job—fun to get out of the office, interesting to meet new people, engaging to spend some time learning their stories.

Then, I switched to corporate communications. Interviewing was harder, more challenging. But I quickly learned that a really good interview was the secret sauce to writing a great story quickly.

Don’t view your interviews as nuisances or unwelcome obligations. Instead, here are 10 tips that will help make your interviews rock:

1. Make sure you interview the right people. It’s too easy to get sucked into interviewing the first person you find—or the one your boss suggests (usually a vice president). Instead, invest some time in identifying a floor-level employee who loves to chat. All organizations have a Chatty Charles or a Chatty Chelsea. Your job is to find them.

2. Start with the easy questions. Never begin an interview with your toughest, most crucial question. In music, that’d be a like a band opening their show with a cut from their brand new (unheard) album. No. They’re going to open with a crowd-pleaser, so they can build the right vibe. Start your interview with easy, friendly, questions. I like to begin by double-checking the spelling of the person’s name, job title, and email address. (This also ensures I have that info right at the top of my notes, which is frequently useful.)

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3. Give them plenty of empathy. You are not a robot, so don’t act like one. When your subject says something interesting, say, “That’s really interesting.” If they say something shocking, respond with, “That really surprises me.” This is the human thing to do, and it will encourage them to speak more frankly with you. Throw in a few “uh-huhs” and “wows,” as well.

4. Paraphrase what they say right back to them. I learned this invaluable trick in newspapers. Instead of just asking questions, repeat what the subject has just told you.

For example: If they’ve mentioned how a product failure led to the development of a new product you might say: “So, you’re telling me that XYZ product was a direct result of the failure of ABC product?”

If you remember only one tip from this list, make it this one. Paraphrasing will improve your interviews 100 percent, because it will show your subjects that you’re hearing what they’re saying, which will make them want to speak more. As well, if you’ve made a mistake or misunderstood something, it gives them the chance to correct you.

5. Really listen. People often ask me if they should take a list of questions into their interviews. Yes, I say. Take a list but don’t look at it until the end, just to double-check you’ve collected all the info you need. Instead, try to ask your next question based on what the subject has just told you. This will make your interview more like a conversation than a cross-examination.

6. Ask for stories, anecdotes, and examples. Think about real life when you’re interviewing. Here’s what you want: stories, anecdotes, and examples from the field. These situations will engage your readers and help you write an article that’s far more interesting than one laden with dry facts. (Bonus tip: Starting your article with an anecdote is almost always great way to begin.)

7. Ask for feelings and opinions. Don’t think for an instant that your only job is to collect the facts. Facts are important, but they’re cold and boring.

Make sure that for every factual question you ask you also ask one about feelings or opinions. How did that make you feel? What did you think about the new product launch? Didn’t it embarrass you when your department failed to meet its deadline?

This kind of detail will give your article an emotional heart, making it dramatically more interesting for your readers.

8. Refuse to accept jargon. So many business people speak Jargon, I’ve begun to view it as a second language. I find that engineers and lawyers are the worst offenders. Whenever people start spewing jargon at me, I stop them and say, “I’m afraid you’re going to have to start at the beginning with me—I’m not very bright.” Or I might even say, “Could you explain this so a 10-year-old could understand it?” (Humor helps.)

9. Take good notes rather than record your interview. I never audio-record interviews. It’s way too much work to do the transcription at the end. I prefer to interview on the phone, wearing a headset, which leaves my hands free to type the notes directly into my computer. On those occasions where I’ve had to meet someone in person, I’ve taken a laptop and typed notes directly. (You must be a good touch-typist to do this, so you can look your subject in the eye while taking notes.)

10. Know that you’ll get your best comments at the very end. Here’s another journalistic truth I picked up years ago: People always tell you the most interesting stuff when you’ve put your notebook away. Expect this. When I’ve stopped taking notes, I listen extra hard for some sensational quotes. Then, when I’ve hung up the phone or walked out the door, I write them down very quickly. Our memories have the ability to retain that sort of information for about five minutes.

I can tell you from experience that if you follow these tips you’ll turn interviewing from a dreaded chore into something that’s fun and invigorating. In turn, this will help you write better, faster. 

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