Monday, June 21, 2010

The top five things to remember when conducting an interview

I consider myself an expert in a few areas when it comes to journalism and writing in general and one of these is the art of the interview. Here are my top five tips:

1. Gauge the mood of the interviewee – if you want to get information, respond to their mood; don’t make them adjust to yours.

2. Always remember: You never know who you’re dealing with on the other end of the phone – or across the table – in terms of character, personality, nationality, religion, etc. Don’t joke about one-legged Italians or tech geeks or somebody’s mom. Keep the conversation focused – if they go off on a tangent, political or otherwise, voice a general “Aha,” or “Is that so?” or another cordial response. OR: Listen to someone who has a different viewpoint from yours – it may act to free up an idea down the road.

3. Know what you’re asking ahead of time. Asking questions off the top of your head rarely works in an interview – you may wind up hanging up the phone and then thinking of something else you should have asked. And it’s just courteous to the person being interviewed to know your subject ahead of time.

**Related issue: How many times is too any times to call back with another question? If you have to call back a second or third time with additional questions, more times than not, the person on the other end will understand. But never lose your humbleness. They owe it to themselves and to the story to get the facts straight but they don’t necessarily owe you.

4. Remember: It’s how you ask the question. I’ve had to ask people who wouldn’t know me if they fell over me for a favor at a second’s notice because of a story deadline. I’ve had to interview the relatives of people killed in natural disasters, terrorism, car accidents, and murders. It’s all in how you ask the question.

On the former, begin by saying something like, “I’m awfully sorry to bother you, but you’re the only person on the face of the earth who can help me.” If the circumstances are more tragic, you offer condolences and then gently ask your questions. People are more likely to respond to you if you show you comprehend their situation.

5. Don’t be afraid to press if you don’t understand something, or need a correct spelling, even if it means interrupting the person. Apologize if they get annoyed; tell them it’s important to get the facts straight. If you establish this early on – “I might need to interrupt you to clarify a point; it's important to me to get everything right,” you’ll have paved the way and set a foundation for the rest of the interview.

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