Interviewing with Confidence
Tips to Writing About People and Getting the Story
It is odd that so much emphasis in journalism school is put on how to structure and write the non-fiction story and little attention is paid to how to interview someone.
Your story is only going to be as good as the material your get from your subject be it a politician, a police officer or just the average person. And your ethical duty to the person being interviewed is present his or her position and comments accurately and fairly.
Learning to ask questions that will elicit interesting responses is, like learning to write, something that comes with practice. With iteration, you will develop instinct and know when to push for answers and when to dial it down and circle back to the question later. You will learn to notice what other details – the setting, gestures, clothing – that set your subject apart and make him or her interesting or unique.
The first time you find yourself in the position to have to ask questions you will feel awkward. You won’t like the sound of your voice. Depending on the situation, you may feel like you are invading the person’s privacy – I did when I asked a teen-ager if he and the mother of his child had discussed birth control before they had sex. (He was not offended and told me they had not.)
“You have to think to yourself that you are a professional, this is your job and not be self-conscious,” said David Ettlin, a former Baltimore Sun rewrite editor who spent 40 years in journalism.
Ettlin told me (and I agree) the most important thing is to be prepared. Know more about the subject than you think you need to – this will earn you respect and he/she will be flattered that you took the time to do your homework.
Besides the Internet – social media profiles and websites -- read as deeply and widely as you can about the subject and/or the person. Talking first to others who know the person is also valuable even if it is not for attribution. The insights of others can help you develop questions to ask when you are ready to interview your subject.
“Know what you want to get out of the interview beforehand -- a description of an event, an on the record of opinion, or just background on a subject,” Ettlin said.
How do you know when you have done enough research? When you start to find the same information repeated, Bill Marimow, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and former top editor at both the Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer, once told me.
During the interview, don’t be afraid to be relentless --- politicians and other public figures are used to dealing with reporters and they will expect this of you.
You should revisit topics/questions that did not get fully addressed the first time you asked.
As you spend more time interviewing people your instincts and the situation will clue you in about when to push for answers and when to back off a bit. Sometimes, if you are interviewing someone for a feature or a profile and you expect to spend some time with your subject, it is better to start with easy questions to establish a rapport before asking about hard or complicated issues.
Also, learn to endure (and note) the silences that sometimes follow a tough question.
When interviewing regular people – witnesses to crimes, crime victims, parents at a contentious school board meeting or anyone who you know does not have experience with journalists – go a bit easier. Be approachable and express sympathy and respect.
“Start at the edge and move toward the center of the event,” Ettlin said. “That is the natural way to get into a story. And you will get a better account of what happened if they are not afraid to talk to you.”
Going in cold is the hardest, as journalists who cover crime often have to do.
“Something happened, so listen when they are talking,” Ettlin said. “Don’t necessarily write when they are talking, look them in the eye and be attentive. If they say something particularly good but you didn’t get it down the first time you can always ask them to say it again. People appreciate that you like what they are saying and that you want to get it right. And they are flattered that you are interested and writing it down.”
After being prepared, your next task is to put your subject at ease. If you are nervous, your subject will be too.
I don’t use a tape recorder not only because it can be intimidating, but also because it simply takes too much time to transcribe the conversation. I just use a narrow reporter’s notebook. If I am doing a phone interview I don't type my notes directly into the computer -- the tapping noise can be heard over the phone and it makes some people nervous -- it's better to just take notes quietly with paper and pen.
One technique that has worked for me is to find some commonality with my subject. Share something about yourself so the interview feels more like a conversation and less like an interrogation. The flow of the questions and answers should sound natural. An answer to one question could lead to a question you hadn’t thought of so don’t interrupt this flow just to move on to the next question on your list.
”You want to draw them out -- be friendly, people don’t like to be intimidated,” Ettlin said.
When I was working on a profile of a teen-age mother, I talked about my son who was about the same age as hers. Sometimes we compared notes about what helped keep our babies calm or what worked to make them sleep longer. It was a tricky line to tow – I was not her friend or her mother, but I think doing this made her feel more comfortable with me because I understood the difficulties of motherhood. And I was always clear that our conversations were on the record.
But sympathy, empathy and friendliness don’t apply in all situations. Many years ago, I was working on a project about rape cases and how difficult they can be to prove. I tracked down a man who was serving prison time for raping a women in the Baltimore suburbs.
I sat across a table from him in a locked room and listened as he described how he stalked one of his victims for days and then one day, just before dawn, he hid in the bushes outside her small brick home and waited for her husband to leave for work.
This was terrible and scary stuff – certainly nothing I could sympathize with. I had to quickly figure out a way not to show my emotions. I decided to not interrupt his story with any questions. I kept looking at his face or at a point on the wall behind him. I glanced down every so often to jot down some notes and concentrated on not moving a single muscle on my face.
Apparently, this worked and he kept talking about his other victims and the methods he used to attack them. If I had shown any outrage or fear, he would likely have shut up.
Your job as an interviewer is not just asking questions and writing down the answers. You should also be noticing the details of the entire setting – how the room is decorated, what else is going on around you, the gestures the person makes as he is talking, clothing and what he or she is doing while talking to you. You may not use all the details you note – and you probably shouldn’t – but there will be some that stick out as telling about the personality of your subject.
In a piece about a California man, who, on a whim, bought a small community paper to keep it from dying, New York Times reporter Tim Arango used these details to give his readers the picture:
"At 71, Mr. Butz is trim, with wire-rimmed glasses and
a close-cropped silver beard, and he dresses in flannel
shirts and cargo pants."
“It’s the image you are going after,” Ettlin said. “You want someone to be able to see it in their mind’s eye.”
As a young crime reporter, Ettlin covered a fire in a row house where a mother and her children lived. The children were trapped in an attic bedroom as the fire fighters worked to put out the blaze.
“I found the mother sitting in the kitchen in the house across the street,” Ettlin recalled. “She was drinking a cup of coffee and her hands were shaking. I just asked her the names and ages of her kids and she told me. Then someone ran in and said the kids had been found. She went running out of the house and got outside just in time to see her children’s bodies being taken out.”
Noticing that the mother’s hands were shaking and what she was drinking were great details to include in the story.
One of the first things to decide once a subject has agreed to the interview is where to conduct it. For a profile of a person, you want them in their natural environment – their home is best or if the reason you are interviewing them is that they have an interesting job, then you may want to do it at work. Try to get both.
When I was working on a profile of Baltimore City’s top prosecutor, first I spent a day with her at work – watching her make decisions and head meetings. She was running for reelection and I followed her around at some at campaign events while she interacted with potential voters and supporters. She also agreed to let me visit her at her home where I learned she collected paintings and other art by local artists.
That went well – she was comfortable with having me around -- and she invited me to her beach house. When I arrived, she was absorbed in a trashy romance novel – her escape, she explained, from the daily tragedies she dealt with at work.
Seeing her in these different settings allowed me to get the details I needed to paint a picture her not only as a powerful big-city prosecutor but also as a regular person with interests that went beyond law and order.
Finally, be ready to for the good quotes that often come after you have put your notebook away and are on the way out the door. When that happens immediately find a place to stop and write them down.