Most journalists’ interviews don’t last long. Half an hour to 40 minutes is usually sufficient to get a really comprehensive picture of an issue or of someone or the company or organisation the person represents.
But if you don’t get it right in that time, it will surely show in your story… And if your news editor spots it, you’ll have to go back to the person and ask them more questions.
It took me many years to get my interview technique right – and it really only came together when I did a weekly Q&A (Question and Answer) for the Daily Dispatch newspaper in East London on the newsmaker of the moment. From township teachers to company CEOs, from farmers and professors to politicians and bishops, I learned so much from these people of the Eastern Cape: chiefly, I learned how to shut my trap and listen – really listen.
It takes a lot of practice – especially as a journalist who loves to ask questions – to learn the art of listening.
And although the level of concentration required is draining, you will also find that if you can quiet your mind in an interview, the result is a real understanding of the person, which makes the writing faster and easier because of the clarity of your thought.
Here are Grubstreet’s top tips to help you to listen and do great interviews:
1. Preparation is EVERYTHING! It is incredibly offensive to the interviewee to set time aside for you, the reporter, amid their busy schedule and you turn up unprepared!
And while I’m on the subject, please be courteous and formal. I am amazed by the young reporters who phone me up (for stories on media) and are over-familiar, do not explain clearly what media organisation they represent and what they need from me. This is not varsity or tech anymore. As a working journalist, you are a professional so act like one!
2. Preparation for an interview starts with research – which, with Google, is very quick these days – and then please take about 10 to 15 minutes to think deeply about what you need to ask in the interview. I know deadlines are pressing but taking half an hour out of your busy day for these two key processes will be worth it.
3. I have found that mind maps are THE best way to prepare for interviews, whether they are on the telephone or face-to-face. In fact, it’s a nice ice breaker to pop the mind map on the table in front of you at the start of the interview.
The interviewee will find it interesting and amusing – and will secretly be impressed with the evidence of your preparation. Once I interviewed someone who had also prepared for the interview with a mind map and we established a great rapport by comparing his and mine! (For more on mind maps, here’s Wikipedia’s entry.)
As an aside, if this interview is something you are really loathe to do – such as confronting an errant politician or interviewing a grieving family member – don’t procrastinate because your confidence will wane. Take a deep breath, visualise the first thing you’re going to say – and get on with it.
I have scanned in two recent mind maps of mine (for interviews with Dispatch editor Bongani Siqoko and Rapport ed Waldimar Pelser). They are a bit messy but you get the idea. Instead of a list of questions (which are easily forgotten), you make a spider-like diagram with each arm covering big themes (for example, the person’s background; their organisation; their views on the industry or ideas on political climate; future challenges; past successes and challenges, etc).
Then, on each arm, you do further little arms for the questions you need to cover regarding that theme. The beauty of this diagrammatic plan is that you can show it your news editor, who can quickly size it up and spot the holes. But mostly, it is easier for you to glance at quickly (than at a list) during the interview and see what’s missing, thereby allowing you to listen better.
4. During the interview, you need to make the person feel comfortable so that he or she will chat happily so dress appropriately (you are not there to stand out but to blend in). Try sit where the interviewee wants to sit. However, if their choice of seating means you will have your notebook in your face, try steer them towards to a table so that your mind map, pen, digital recorder, notebook, etc., are not a barrier between you and the person.
5. At the beginning of the interview set the person at ease by explaining once again who this interview is for, what form it will probably take (a Q&A or part of a bigger trend story, for instance) and go through the main areas (from your mind map!) you wish to cover. If they feel comfortable with you, they are bound to be more articulate, which is better for your story.
6. Even though the mind map is there on the table in front of you, don’t keep looking at it but rather ask the first question and really concentrate on what the person is saying. There will be a follow-up question coming from what they have just told you – and another and another.
This will keep the conversation flowing naturally and, if you pick up on their cues, you will find that the two of you will cover almost everything in your plan. The idea is to keep this flowing like conversation – not demarcating a question and answer time.
7. If something unusual and interesting is thrown out in the conversation that you didn’t anticipate, just write a key word down somewhere to remind yourself to come back to it.
8. If the person says something obviously controversial – then it’s worth flagging it and even saying to them: “That’s pretty controversial.” Often, the interviewee is not speaking without thinking but is hoping you will ask for more.
If they are talking out of turn and ask you not to quote them, weigh it up and try negotiating. “But what do you want to say?” you can ask. “Is it x, y, z…?” While it is the interviewee’s job to watch what they say, it is not your job to catch them out. You’re trying to get to a really profound understanding of this person, event or issue – and often reflecting what the person will not comment on will tell the reader a lot.
9. If there is anything you don’t understand, flag it in your notebook and come back to it. And if someone is being sketchy about something seemingly important (politicians often speak in code as they don’t want to be quoted on shifts in policy but they want you to explain the shift), then stop and say: “Let me make sure I understand what you are saying: that the department’s policy for the taxi industry has changed to x,y,z…?”
10. If the person is a rambler, give them some rope (sometimes people’s minds’ work like spiders and they will leap from one interesting thing to the next ) but do look for the opportune moment to interrupt politely to steer conversation along to other issues. If the person is pompously expecting to lecture you rather than engage, you will have to get tough and interrupt firmly BUT politely. You are there to do a job on behalf of your readers and this person has, after all, agreed to give you information.
11. If the person is really not articulate, you will have to find different ways of asking the same question to help them along. Likewise if the person is hostile towards you, keep phrasing the same question differently to try coax it out of them. With your mind map in the back of your head, you know what is needed.
12. Sometimes, however, you do have to give up on a line of questioning as the person will just keep avoiding the issue. This tells you a lot – and it will tell the reader what the person doesn’t not wish to discuss when you reflect this in your story. As I said above, this can be very insightful in itself.
13. At the end of the interview, don’t forget to ask the person if you can phone them if there’s anything else you need to know or you need to check. Also, don’t be ashamed to say: “OK, I think I’ve asked everything I wanted to… unless you think there’s something I missed?”
You will be amazed by how many people take you up on the offer to give you additional insight into something or sum everything up for you. This tells you what is really important to them and may deliver that special nugget for your story that was not even on your radar screen when you went into the interview.
Krash King’s top tips for subeditors, June 2013
How to survive newsdesk and be great at it, March 2012; and Veteran Sunday Times news editor Peter Malherbe’s tips for newsdesk, March 2012