To be clear, these tips are for interviewing subjects for stories, not job interviews. To my potential employers: Look! I know how to interview! I also have enough of an understanding of the current media environment to know that listicles generate clicks and shares. To my fellow journalism students: you know these tips, you eat these tips, you sleep these tips. But it’s always comforting to know someone agrees with you.
Every journalism student gets to the point where they think they can just “wing it.” Do not wing it. Draft your questions. Do your background research. Finalize your questions. Attempting to “wing it” will lead to you sounding stupid and forgetting to ask the basic questions. Being prepared is basic, but important.
Be the calm one.
I was born chatty and outgoing, but I understand that everyone is not in the same loquacious boat. But I can promise you that it is ten times more disconcerting to be the interview subject than the interviewer. You have a nice prepared list of questions. Your subject has no idea what is coming. So remain calm. You are in control of the interview. If you’re nervous and your subject is nervous your transcript is going to be a mess of “ummmms” and awkward chuckles. You set the tone and calm is a good setting.
Relish the silence.
Any journalist you know can out-awkward you. A good journalist will not rush to fill every lull in conversation. Silence between answers and questions forces the subject to think more in depth about your question and give a more insightful answer. Or the silence will make them feel awkward and they will blurt out something that is less guarded than their original response. You, the interviewer, have to be able to sit in this silence. You can’t fold first. Of course, you do not want to be painfully awkward; you want just awkward enough. Interview subjects understand that is their job to talk, it is the job of the interviewer to give them room to do so.
Taking notes serves multiple purposes. One, you should never trust technology. You need to have the gems written down, just in case. Two, even if technology does not fail you (which it probably will), it is always nice to have notes of things you want to make sure are included. If your subject gives a really great quote, you want to take note of when on the recording that quote happened. Another reason to take notes: it gives you something to do while you are waiting out your subject’s silence. If your hands are busy, you are much less likely to fold first.
Sometimes, your subject just won’t cooperate and you will have to go off script. If you can find something they are interested in or passionate about, let that guide your questions. Once you get the basic questions answered, you have some freedom. Don’t be afraid to ask the questions you think of in the moment.
A lot of people who are much smarter than me and much more qualified than me, have written tips for interviewing. Roy Peter Clark, Maria Emilia Martin, and Chip Scanlan, know what they’re talking about.