A good interview can turn your piece into an outstanding article and a bad interview can turn the writing process into a grind as you desperately try to introduce punchy facts that don’t come from the horse’s mouth. Here are some tips to help you improve your interview skills and create better articles.
For freelance writers or content creators, being a good interviewer is crucial. You need to be able to talk to people in a way that draws out information and answers questions clearly.
My interviewing and journalism experience
As with most of my “how-to” blog posts, I like to begin with a sentence or two about my experience on this subject so you can assess for yourself whether you should trust that I know what I’m talking about. In my current full-time role I am the managing editor of a monthly magazine and I write regularly for that magazine. I also publish regular blog posts for the company I work for and many of those require interviewing people for information, not necessarily for quoting. I also write a weekly property advice column that is published in most daily newspapers in Queensland as well as online for News Corp Australia and other media companies. I conduct interviews at least two or three times a week and write two, three or four pieces of content a week. I also work with our marketing manager to create content she can use in her marketing activities. I do lots of interviews for this work! I’ve also been a journalist for 20 years and conducted thousands of interviews in that time! I’ve also been an expert interviewee, being interviewed regularly on television and radio on a range of topics.
Content that requires quotes
So, let’s get back to the skills required for conducting a good interview! Certain pieces of content rely very heavily on a good interview and without a good interview the content is almost impossible to create. These content pieces include:
- News articles
- Broadcast (TV and radio) interviews
- Some long-form feature articles
- Profile pieces
There are many content types that don’t require a good interview. This type of ‘how to’ blog post, for example, where I’m sharing my own skills and knowledge that I’ve learned over more than two decades in the journalism trade.
How to conduct a good interview
Without a really good interview to underpin the article, the work becomes 10 times harder as you scramble to get the detail from other sources. (For tips on how to write a great piece from a bad interview, stay tuned for my upcoming July blog post).
There are some basic tips that will help you get the best interview you can, irrespective of your experience level. Be aware of these things and your interview will be much better than if you charged blindly in.
Don’t waste precious minutes of interview time asking questions that you could have found the answers to elsewhere. Also, if you ask your interview subject basic questions that demonstrate you haven’t prepared for the interview, you risk getting them offside. Do your homework. What else has been written about them, what significant events have happened in their lives or their careers that are noteworthy? Make sure you have a picture of this person before you begin. As you do your research jot down questions about what you’re learning – why did they choose this university? What scared them about that decision? Did they have any regrets along the way? Any second thoughts about a particular action?
Set up the interview:
Interviews in person (face to face) are always best because you can read body language and really develop a rapport with the subject, which will make them more likely to share intimate details. However, increasingly in modern newsrooms journalists rarely leave their desk and for productivity reasons conduct 99 per cent of their interviews over the phone. I grew up in this era and am very comfortable interviewing by phone, but I did start my cadetship in an old-style newsroom where face to face interviews were encouraged. This gave me a feel for the subject, skills to read their mood and understand nuances to their words that would have been missed over the phone.
When you are setting an appointment to interview someone, it’s possible they may ask, “Can I see the article before it’s published?”. I was trained to say no with conviction and stop any further enquiry along similar lines in its tracks. This can get you into trouble because subjects almost always want to change something. And then you’re in the position of arguing why you used this word over that word, or why your viewpoint is this instead of that. It’s easier to avoid this trap altogether and say no.
However, in this day and age where lines between commercial consideration and editorial independence are a lot more blurry, it’s probably better to recommend you make that decision for yourself. For example, if you’re ghostwriting a blog post about a complicated subject, such as finance regulations or property law, then it’s probably helpful to have your expert review your final piece for accuracy and technical detail. You can only show them parts of the article, if you like. Don’t feel as though you have to show them the whole piece. As you become more knowledgeable in certain subjects the need for this help will diminish.
Another rookie mistake is allowing the subject to set the terms of the interview. They may wish to only talk about one particular topic and try to insist that the resulting article only cover that. Again, I would caution against agreeing to limiting terms. I would usually say, “Happy to take that into consideration but I can’t guarantee anything”.
Depending on the type of interview, it’s always good to have a structure to how you want the interview to go. (Just remember, the subject is not aware of your structure and so their answers can take the interview all over the place, rather than following your linear plan!). Sometimes that structure can be timeline focused, eg beginning at the earliest point (such as when the subject was born, where they went to school, what they studied at university, where they got their first job, how that happened, what their second job was, and so on). Sometimes it can be geography focused, eg let’s start at the tip of Cape York and follow your journey down the coast of Queensland. Or it can be achievement/award focused. It can be anything you like, but have an idea of where you want to start, what you’ll tackle in the middle, and then softer topics at the end that will bring the interview to a natural conclusion.
Should you have a list of questions written down? The answer to this is not black and white. It really depends on your skill and experience level. For beginners, a list of questions is helpful and for many (me included) it was a security blanket to ensure that all the important bits wouldn’t be forgotten (as long as I referred to the list!). But there comes a time when that list of questions can be restrictive because it stops you from developing another crucial skill for being a great interviewer, and that is listening.
Listen, ask follow-up questions:
For nervous rookies, a list of questions can be a comfort. However, it is important to listen to the answers. This is where most of the gold lies, hidden. When you hear something that piques your interest, a simple, “What do you mean?” or “Tell me more” can uncover a deep seam of interesting facts that will add rich depth to your article.
When I’m conducting an interview, as I’m listening to answers I’ll jot down follow-ups as they occur to me so that I don’t forget them or get distracted by the subject’s answer. As I ask each follow-up, I’ll cross it out in my notes so I know that I’ve tackled that.
Be aware that you can easily fall down the rabbit hole of follow-up questions. Always keep in mind the bigger picture of what your article is going to broadly be about and make sure that any significant time spent pulling on a thread, so to speak, is going to support that bigger picture. For example, if you’re interviewing a convicted criminal about their prison experience for a broader piece on whether jails rehabilitate or simply punish, then don’t spend 20 minutes of a 45 minute interview on how the prisoner learned a language while inside. It’s an interesting point that will illustrate a broader point about rehabilitation, but learning a language is not the central theme of the article. Whenever you find yourself being dragged down this rabbit hole, move onto the next question on your list, or circle back to the theme, which is rehabilitation and what kind of human being a jail sentence produces.
Be direct, be brave:
Brevity is key. For many (and if I were the sort of person to make sweeping generalisations, it would be people like me, pleasers who want to be liked and don’t want to offend) it can be difficult to ask what many would see as intrusive questions. You have to learn to set that aside, to ignore social mores and throw out the rules about polite society. This is an interview and presumably an interview that your subject has agreed to. They should be expecting some tough questions. Don’t be shy. Ask them why it took so long to write that book, what they learned from being sacked, how it felt to be publicly embarrassed.
Don’t lie to get a particular response, don’t pretend to be anything other than who you are and what you’re doing. You can’t expect honesty if you aren’t prepared to be honest.
Be comfortable with silence!
Ask your question and then stop. This can be a tough skill to learn, so I recommend you practice it in your everyday life. When you’re getting a haircut ask the hairdresser a question and then stop. When they finish speaking and are waiting for you to take your turn, don’t. Simply wait and see what happens. People are generally very uncomfortable with silence and will rush to fill it. In this rush, many will let personal details tumble out and voila! You have some gold for your article.
Ask open-ended questions!
This is the golden rule of interviewing. Don’t ask questions that yes or no can be the accepted response. Ask questions that start with, “How…” or “Why…” or “What…”. Don’t start your question with “Is…” Follow-up questions can be things like, “Tell me more about that”. Examples of open-ended and closed-ended questions.
Tools of the trade:
I record all of my interviews on a digital mini recorder. I used to take shorthand notes but within a couple of years of graduating from university (where my journalism major demanded I pass a shorthand test of 80 words per minute, 99 per cent accuracy to get my degree) my shorthand was inadequate.
However, my typing speed is about 110 wpm, so this is very handy for phone interviews. I type dictation and record. This means I have a very good guide to the recording and I don’t need to painstakingly transcribe the interview word-for-word. I already have a pretty good transcript that guides me to where the best quotes are. I often jot down time codes as the interview is going.
Recording your interview does bring with it the painstaking activity of transcribing it before you can write the piece. Although, there are now some sensational dictation software programs available that will transcribe your recording for you. They’re not 100 per cent perfect but they’re good enough that you can find the great quote on the recording and get the quote word perfect.
I transfer all my interviews and accompanying transcripts to my Dropbox folder when I’m done.
In Queensland, as in many other jurisdictions of Australia, as long as one person knows the conversation is being recorded then you are not breaking the law. However, it’s advisable to let people know they’re being recorded. I usually start the conversation with, “Thanks for agreeing to this interview, I really appreciate it. Just letting you know I’ll be recording it. Let’s get started.” I’ve never had any pushback, that I can recall. This will also make nervous interview subjects relax a little because they know you’re making efforts to be precise and accurate with quotes. It also has the added benefit of being a preventative measure against subjects who come back when they see their words in print and say, “I didn’t say that.”
Outstanding journalism interviews:
- Podcast: Mia Freedman and co-host Rachel Corbett talk to Sarah Ferguson about how she prepared for her interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sarah shares how she uses certain questions to build rapport with Hillary and she also talks about how she blocks out interference from Hillary’s entourage to get what is an outstanding political interview from one of this country’s best interviewers. Listen to this insightful and fascinating interview here. And if you want to see Sarah’s interview with Hillary, watch or read the transcript here.
- TV: Leigh Sales adopts a confrontational style when interviewing Malcolm Turnbull and persists on asking him to reveal his “signature achievement”. Watch, or read the transcript here.
- TV, movie: David Frost, a British broadcast journalist, interviewed disgraced former US President Richard Nixon in a four-part series in which Nixon essentially admitted to his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. It is widely regarded as an outstanding example of deft political journalism and interviewing of all time and has been made into a movie, released in 2008.
Further reading on how to be a good interviewer: