Every day around the globe, journalists pick up the phone or head out of the newsroom. They meet someone, a stranger or a familiar contact. They take out a notebook and turn on the their cameras and hit record. And then they perform two simple acts. They ask a question and they listen to the answer. An interview has begun.
Interviewing is the heart of journalism.
How do you get people tight-lipped cops, jargon-spouting experts, everyday folks who aren’t accustomed to being interviewed to give you useful answers? How do you use quotes effectively in your stories?
Every good interviewer know you will learn more from your interviewee if you're prepared. All too often, journalists start an interview armed only with a handful of question scribbled in their notebooks. Take time, however short, to bone up on your subject or the topic you’ll be discussing.
Craft your questions.
The best questions are open-ended. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?” They’re conversations starters and encourage expansive answers that produce an abundance of information needed to produce a complete and accurate story.
Closed-ended questions are more limited but they have an important purpose. Ask them when you need a direct answer: Did you embezzle the company’s money? Closed-ended questions put people on the record.
The worst are conversation stoppers, such as double-barreled questions. “Why did the campus police use pepper spray on student protesters? Did you give the order?” Double-barreled questions give the subject a choice that allows them to avoid the question they want to ignore and choose the less difficult one.
The moral: Shut your mouth. Wait. People hate silence and rush to fill it. Ask your question. Let them talk. If you have to, count to 10. Make eye contact, smile, nod, but don’t speak. You’ll be amazed at the riches that follow.
A long-held stereotype about reporters is that they don’t care about people, they just care about getting stories. If you can show sources that you have empathy, some understanding of their plight, they’re more likely to open up to you.
Just remember you are a human first!