Back when I was an intern at the Herndon Connection, I used to come in early in the morning to try to knock out my interviews. Why? I didn’t want anyone else in the newsroom to hear me stammering over my questions. I’ve since heard other reporters confess they did this early in their careers, too. Interviewing can be intimidating, so I thought I’d share my five best tips.
– Practice really does make perfect, and practice can take years. I grew up overhearing my dad interview athletes on the phone — sometimes about controversial things — and he made it sound so effortless. As my first few years in the field went by, and picking up that phone got only incrementally easier for me, I was convinced I just wasn’t cut out for it. He insisted it would gradually become more natural, and he was right. But it pretty much took a year of doing it every day. Hang in there, and remember the best of us have a bad one now and then.
– Have go-to questions. Besides your list of prepared questions (you did do your research, right?), develop a couple questions you can always go to in a pinch when you’re doing a particular type of piece. I might ask subjects about common misconceptions in their fields, or what surprised them about X or Y. My husband likes to end profile-type interviews by asking what the subject’s future plans or goals are, and often gets a nice, tidy ending quote.
– Follow up. It’s tempting to stick to your list, especially if you have limited time and a lot of ground to cover. But some of the best stuff comes from listening to the subject’s answer and asking him or her to expand on it. Once I heard NPR’s Terry Gross interview Denis Leary, and he was speaking rather philosophically about learning to control his temper as he gets older. But he alluded to a recent fight with a cab driver, and Terry said breathlessly, “Wait, what happened with the cabbie?” It ended up being a great story.
– Don’t be afraid to sound dumb. OK, not clueless or unprepared. But I’ve learned not to worry much about dazzling my subject with my depth of knowledge; my primary responsibility is to my reader. So I frequently find myself saying, “Forgive me if this question is very basic, but …” or “Could you break that down for me in layman’s terms?” In fact, most people reflexively like you when you’re asking them to explain something they have expertise in.
– Be yourself. I think early on I overcompensated for being young by trying to sound uber-professional in interviews — all business and even a little brusque. But that’s really not me — in real life, I’m outgoing and mile-a-minute chatty. Now, unless I’m really on the clock (like with a celebrity) or sense it’s not appropriate, I tend to open my interviews with some brief chit-chat, and I’m not afraid to let a little bit of my personality come through in the conversation. I find this helps both of us relax, and I get much better material. Not long ago, after a friendly and fascinating with a professor, I hung up and thought, “Hey, I’m good at this.” And I did it my way.
What are your best tips?