Interviewing tips and tricks

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Steve Halama

Interviewing isn’t as straight forward as often expected, requiring a large degree of planning and organisation. (Source: Steve Halama on Unsplash)

The act of asking a question and being able to relate and contextualise the answer is at the crux of journalistic practices. However, it’s an unpredictable art that takes practice, as well as knowhow, to master.

For those of you still in the skill-building phrase, here’s some tips to help you plan, organise and enjoy your interviews.

Pre-Interview

If you have time, it is important to research your interviewee and topic before the interview. Rev Transcription recommends reading your interviewees’ LinkedIn pages for their work history, as well as checking Google, Facebook, Twitter and other social media. New York Times reporter Mirta Ojito, in a Poynter journalism piece about interviewing, recommends researching to the extent that she knows “almost as much as they do about their subject, so it seems we are ‘chatting’”. Not only does research allow for ease of discussion, but it also cuts down writing time later.

Following this, it is recommended to thoroughly consider location when scheduling interviews. While coffee shops and restaurants may be convenient for conversation, consider the quality of audio you will record and difficulties this may produce come transcription time. To learn the limits of your recording devices try recording some audio next time you’re in a cafe, so you’ll know what to expect. To minimise the interference find a table a long way away from the coffee machine and avoid the lunchtime rush hour.

Also consider the ability of the location to provide context, for example, homes and offices provide background information on the interviewee’s personal or professional lives. Even when using Zoom for remote interviews, requesting certain backgrounds or rooms allows for greater insight into the interviewee’s lifestyle or habits. 

Before beginning the interview, make sure you have a set of open-ended question to ask the interviewee. While you may not follow them exactly, these provide a “guideline” for the interview and avoid the stress of having to come up with questions while also actively listening to answers. Poynter journalism recommends you avoid double-barreled (two at once style) questions which may allow answers to be avoided, and to always begin with conversation starters. 

During your Interview

Scott Zamost, senior investigative producer at the CNBC in a piece with the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, recommends never leading with the toughest question – unless it’s your only one. And – in these cases – to be persistent, rewording questions instead of taking no for an answer. Zamost also recommends recording and transcribing all interviews, even when they are not for audio publication, in order to not miss any important information. Make sure before pressing record, you receive consent from your interviewee. It is often recommended to take notes as well as recordings as a back-up in case of technological failure. 

During the interview, don’t be afraid to leave a break for silence. By staying quiet, interviewees instinctually fill the space with words to avoid awkward silences, often revealing pertinent information. Breaks in the conversation also allow time to consider follow-up questions and give the subject time to consider any information they may have left out on the topic. 

Also remember to make good use of closed (yes/no or short answer) questions to nail down facts that you need to be clear about, such as ‘when did that happen?’ and ‘were you told about it?’

Remote reporting

When interviewing remotely, it is important to take even more care in regards to question and tone. The usual indicators of body language and environment are no longer present, and it is often harder to communicate with sources. 

If you’re remote recording and wanting to use the audio for publication, you’ll want to make sure the interview quality is as high as possible. The best way to do this is double-ended recording, asking your interviewer to record the conversation separately on their end through an application and then saving as an mp3 file to send through to you. Voice Record Pro is the more highly recommended application in this category, although the voice recorder function of most smartphones provides high enough quality audio for most. 

The Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, in their tips on audio interviews, recommends walking your interviewee through the remote recording application before the interview itself. Then, conduct a test while on the call before asking questions to confirm all settings are in working order. 

Even while using a double-ended recording, it is recommended that you record the entirety of the conversation in Zoom in case any of the recordings are faulty or don’t work out. On the same note, make sure to test recording applications out with family and friends before contacting interviewees to confirm the strength of WiFi and quality of the recording. Make sure that the location you choose is quiet, and that both WiFi and cellular data are working.

 

Fernanda Santos, a former New York Times journalist, has recently published at set of tweets about narrative reporting and interviews during COVID-19, that wee shared by the Radio Television Digital News Association. She recommends asking sources for video tours of homes or offices, asking sensory questions and even requesting for diary entries to attempt the same personal engagement as in-person interviews. Santos also recommends using Google Images to immerse yourself in your story further and provide context you may be lacking without in-person tours.

 

For more tips and support checkout these links to interview resources: