When you interview people year after year, it’s easy to get into a rut. But what’s comfortable isn’t necessarily good, or effective.
I had such a revelation during a panel discussion on interviewing skills at the 2011 American Society of Journalists and Authors writer’s conference that took place in New York earlier this month.
Here are some of the winning interview strategies that Gray and Freedman shared:
1. Establish your credentials. If you’re interviewing a celebrity or other public figure, be prepared to explain why you’re qualified to do the interview or write the story. That could mean sharing similar stories you’ve done before or high-profile publications you’ve written for, Gray says.
2. It’s OK to get personal in interviews, at least a little. Use icebreakers – last night’s baseball game, the weather, your hometown – to get subjects in the mood to talk.
3. If you use a recorder, put it in an inconspicuous place. If it’s not in their face, a source might forget it’s there and be more willing to open up.
4. Know the questions you want to ask, but don’t stick to an outline. Let the interview go where it wants to go. “It isn’t an interrogation, it’s an interview,” Freedman says.
5. Don’t be afraid to be quiet. Let the subject fill the silent spaces.
6. Bring props. If you’re doing historical research, bring clippings from old magazines or newspapers, a photograph or some other memorabilia – anything that could spark a source’s memory and get them talking.
7. Take notes. Even if you record interviews, back yourself up by taking notes. Recorders have been known to fail, and you might never get another shot with your interview subject. Rather than taking his notebook out immediately, Freedman says he waits until the source is comfortable, then makes flipping open his reporters’ notebook a natural part of the process.
8. Maintain a critical distance. It’s OK to empathize with a source, but it’s not OK to promise to be someone’s advocate. “Being a compassionate listener is different than saying you’ll carry their version of reality into the world,” Freedman says.
9. Don’t interrupt. Don’t be so stuck on getting to your next question that you cut a source off before they’ve had time to give a complete answer, even if it seems like they’re digressing. “You have no idea where they might lead,” Freedman says.
10. Don’t settle for generalities. Details are the stuff great stories are made of, so dig them out. People like to give short answers, and talk in adjectives, i.e., “It was nice.” “It’s your job to go back and gently persist and get the specifics,” Freedman says.
11. Prompt a reaction. It’s OK to throw out specific things for subjects to react to, e.g., “How did you feel when the old church was torn down?” or “What were you thinking when you walked off that bus?” Prompts can jog people’s memories or get them out of speaking in generalities, Freedman says.
12. An interview is never really over. Don’t be afraid to do a follow up visit or call or email asking for more information if what you have isn’t enough. Sometimes the best details don’t emerge until the second or third conversation you have with a source. In some stories Freedman’s worked on, he says he didn’t really figure out what the story was about until the second or third round of interviews. “Or a once-sentence comment could be the lead,” he says.