Anyone can ask questions, in fact we all ask questions as part of everyday life. It’s not a skill unique to journalists, nor is there any kind of exclusive access required. What sets the interviewer apart is the ability to get the most out of their interviewee and create a compelling, flowing interview that delivers all the essential information.

To do this the interviewer needs to ask the right questions in the right way and in the right order, appropriately set and maintain the interview environment, and be responsive throughout.

While every interview is unique and everyone has their own style, these first five tips are universal and will help any interviewer improve their technique.

The Universal 5 Top Tips for Interviewers

1. Be prepared – Don’t mistake being prepared for being a know-it-all. In fact, the last thing you want to do is steal your interviewee’s best answers. You may never have the opportunity to show your thorough background knowledge but it is important that you gather the information you need so that you can ask the right questions, understand the answers, formulate intelligent follow-up questions and avoid missing the story or having the wool pulled over your eyes. Ignorance is a loop hole for the media savvy and a dangerous weakness if you’re doing an accountability interview. (A little side anecdote – Once I interviewed two poets about an upcoming poetry festival. During the interview I read one of the poems out loud. Unfortunately it was haiku, a style I knew nothing about, and embarrassingly put my ignorance on show for all with completely improper rhythm.)

2. Be responsive – Listening is as critical as asking questions. If you’ve ever heard an interviewer ask a question that’s just been answered, you’ll know how damaging it is to credibility. Besides, an attentive listener encourages deeper, more expressive storytelling. Whether or not you write out your questions it is important that you’re able to adapt as the interview plays out while still achieving your objective.

3. Speak to the authority – Firsthand information and stories are the most valuable and largely what sets professional interviews apart. Interview the person the story is about, the witness, the decision maker, the expert. If it’s not possible to speak to the closest source, consider whether the story is important enough to settle for the second-in-charge but never settle for the ‘friend of a friend’ because there’s no credibility or authenticity in third-hand accounts.

4. Be respectful – There are several good reasons for simple respect and you’d be surprised what a difference it can make. Not only is it the professional thing to do, you will get better answers if the person you’re interviewing feels valued, and you’ll improve your chances of booking future interviews with him or her (even if your interview is about a topic that makes them uncomfortable). It’s also important that you give audience members the opportunity to develop their own feelings and opinions so don’t interrupt that process with a lack of respect. On the flip side, if you’re disrespectful to others your audience may have less respect for you.

5. Remember the 5 Ws and the H – Who did What? When? Where? Why? How? Sometimes not all of these will be relevant but if you don’t keep them in mind you may miss the crux of the story. ‘Why’ questions have the power to dig ever deeper. ‘How’ questions often bring colourful, valuable anecdotes. Don’t forget that there may be two or more relevant questions for each of your Ws and H (eg: When did it happen? and: When is the consequence being decided?).

These bonus tips are specific to the three main interview types: discovery, accountability and information.

5 Top Tips for Discovery Interviews

Discovery interviews are relevant when there’s a ‘story’; a narrative or personal journey to reveal and discover (eg: the survival story of a man lost at sea for 60 days).

1. Build rapport – Rapport goes a step further than simple respect and the difference is well worth it. Take time to establish rapport with your interviewee so that he or she will feel comfortable entrusting you with what might be a deeply intimate story, or at least one that they are the custodian of. Remember that there’s nothing compelling an interviewee to give you a full and immersive answer just because you asked the question; they have to want to tell it that way.

2. Allow for silences – Just as you might be compelled to fill the space left by silence, so too will your interviewee and what he or she has to say is more important. Your interviewee may be considering delving deeper into their story and if you disturb the process you will lose what may have come a second or two later.

3. Prepare the interviewee – Spend some time beforehand speaking to your interviewee about what topics will be covered and in what way. Give him or her a sense of how you plan for the interview to flow (beginning, middle and end), whether there is a preferred length of time or level of detail for each answer and how long the interview will be. Give your interviewee a chance to ask questions and reduce any nervousness.

4. Pre-record – While there are some shows that regularly go live with discovery interviews, it takes a skilled interviewer and considerable preparation to do so successfully. Pre-recording helps alleviate the interviewee’s nerves about accidentally saying something they can’t take back, or fumbling about embarrassingly while people watch on. Let your interviewee know beforehand what kind of editing you plan to do and whether you will let them review it before it is published. This way you’re both clear and your interviewee has confidence in the outcome.

5. Let emotions pour freely – Don’t be afraid of the interviewee getting emotional, this is where the power of the story is. Prepare your interviewee for the chance that things might get heavy and get a measure of what level of emotion he or she will be comfortable with before you start. Interviewers may feel nervous that they’re being exploitative if they record someone crying but remember that your interviewee was already familiar with the emotion of the story when he or she agreed to the interview so unless you act unethically you have nothing to worry about.

5 Top Tips for Accountability Interviews

Accountability interviews are those undertaken when someone or an organisation needs to be held to account (eg: mismanagement of public funds). Consequently an accountability interview is a strategic battle of sorts.

1. Be doubly prepared – You need to have a full arsenal of weapons and be able to anticipate your opponent’s next move. Know the answers you’re likely to get, know what your interviewee’s critics are saying (and have quotes handy to present when the time is right), and have all the figures, dates and details at hand during the interview.

2. Consider carefully whether to go live or pre-record – Which option gives you the advantage for the interview you’re planning? By going live you might be able to catch your interviewee off guard before they’ve had time to prepare strategies to avoid your cunning questions but beware if you have a set time frame a media savvy interviewee can fill out the time with fluff, repetition and sidetracking and prevent you getting a single useful answer (politicians are masters at this). A pre-recorded interview gives you the time to get to the bottom of the issue and the ability to edit out irrelevant nonsense and repetition.

3. Use closed questions – This is the only interview type where yes or no questions are advantageous. Closed questions get straight to the point and make it painfully obvious when your interviewee is trying to avoid giving a straight answer.

4. Keep on track – Repeat and rephrase questions that your interviewee avoids. Make questions simple and specific (no double-barrelled questions) and whenever the interviewee tries to sidetrack, pull the interview back into focus as soon as possible.

5. Make sure you’re asking the right person the right questions – You can’t conduct an accountability interview with a person who is not accountable for the issue at hand, it will become boring buck passing and relevant questions will become irrelevant. Similarly you can’t adequately perform an accountability interview if you’re not asking the right questions to unpack the issue and unlock the truth.

5 Top Tips for Information Interviews

Information interviews are focussed on getting information and are often related to breaking stories (eg: an ongoing weather emergency).

1. Always go to the source – Second-hand information bears little credibility in an information interview. You need a witness or person of authority on the matter.

2. Combine close-ended questions with wide open questions – Close-ended questions help you quickly survey what kind of information your interviewee has while wide open questions provide an opportunity for the interviewee to reveal any and all information. Both question types also have disadvantages. Close-ended questions will bring short answers while wide open questions put your interviewee in total control. So use the two in conjunction to find the information you need, flesh it out nicely and keep the interview on track.

3. Let the interviewee lead – While you don’t want the interview to become a chaotic rambling, keep in mind that the interviewee is the one with the story. Tone down your prominence and help your interviewee to shine.

4. Keep it to an appropriate length – If you’re covering a breaking story, there may be a limited amount of information available and anecdotes may be non-existent. There are few things more painful than when an interviewer tries to drag out one minute worth of information into a four minute time slot. On the other hand, if you’re involved in emergency coverage of a flood or fire, it’s important to allow enough time for all the vital information to be covered as it could save a life.

5. Be thorough – Keep checking whether you’ve answered all of your who, what, when and where questions and look for new ones to emerge. Why and how questions are less prominent and sometimes may not be appropriate.

A final word: Bear in mind that not all interviews fit neatly into one of these three main types. Some interviews are a combination and there may be times when an interview starts out as one type but becomes another. Mix and match your tips where appropriate.

Happy interviewing!

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.

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  • Tony Bilbrough

    Very interesting. I would like to follow your Blog, but couldnt find the ‘follow’ button. This could be an ‘Old Age’ thing

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