Do your homework.
If you are interviewing an individual or organization that receives many interview requests, do a search in a database like Factiva or Lexis Nexis or even Google News to look at the topics and issues they have spoken about already. Be sure to read over any literature, websites, or social media accounts the individual or organization runs or hosts. Look to see if you find the answers to your basic questions on those sites and in past articles. Based on that information, what questions can you ask during your interview to get new information about this topic?
Example: You are interviewing a representative from a local animal rescue group about their views on “breed specific legislation” in neighborhoods and cities. Because you did your homework, instead of asking “What are your thoughts on breed specific legislation?” you can ask “How could breed specific legislation impact your goal of zero stray animals on local streets?” The latter giving you new information and a better, more illuminating answer.
Open-ended questions are your best bet. They begin with “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.” Open ended questions allow interviewees to open up, provide expansive answers and give great information. Only use closed-ended questions when you need a direct yes or no answer. Don’t combine questions as most people will forget or purposely skip part of a question. Only ask one question at a time.
Example: You are crafting questions to ask a local politician running for re-election in her district. You decide to ask mostly open-ended questions to gain more information and to make the interview feel more like a “chat”, however you decide to ask her directly, yes or no, if she will vote in favor of a controversial transportation bill proposed by the city if she is re-elected.
Make a plan.
Write out the questions you want to ask and prioritize the most important ones first. Interviews can derail quickly if you aren’t prepared. Make a list of the questions you need answers to and a list of back up questions that would be nice to ask but aren’t the core questions you need answers to. If you are new to interviewing, practice with a friend. Interviews are a mix of Q&A and regular conversation. Remember that no one likes to be interrogated but a completely unstructured interview will leave you with nothing of use. So practice is the only way to get better at this balancing act. Practicing with a peer can also help you determine if a question is clear and easy to understand or if you need to go back and rework the question.
Example: It’s Monday morning, you’ve scheduled an interview for Thursday with a local business professional who is opening a new ride share company, but only has 20 minutes to spare to talk to you. You spend Monday doing background research, Tuesday formulating your questions, and Wednesday practicing your questions with a friend. Your mock interview lasts 35 minutes so you decide to move two questions to your back up list. Your interview on Thursday goes smoothly and you have a lot of great quotes for your story.
Look and Listen.
Good interviewers know when to embrace the awkward silence and take a look around the room. Don’t be afraid of silence or pauses. Ask your question, then wait for the person to answer. If you rush to fill the silence, you’ll miss out on critical information or a great quote. Also remember that your surroundings tell the story just as much as the person you are interviewing. It’s why you’re doing this task face to face (or maybe over the phone) and not just sending an email. Take note of what you see and/or hear in the room or building around you.
Example: You’re interviewing a person about a large check that has made its way to a suspicious account. You ask your question and remain silent. The interviewee, uncomfortable with the silence, blurts out incriminating information. Congratulations, you’re Bob Woodward!
Record your interview. While you’ll be taking notes as you talk with your interviewee, you should also record the interview and transcribe it later. Recording your interview can help you become a better interviewer by reviewing what seemed to work and what did not during your interview process. It can also help clear up any miscommunications or issues regarding hearsay or off the record remarks. In Texas, only one party needs consent to be recorded, meaning as long as you are one of the participants in the conversation, you do not have to notify the other parties that you are recording if you think it will influence their honest answers.
Example: You interviewed a legal expert about an ongoing trial and quoted them in your story. The day the story comes out, the legal expert says that what they told you was “off the record” and they are going to sue you. Fortunately, you recorded and transcribed your interview and at no time during the interview did the interviewee say that any information was off the record. You are in the clear.
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