How to Conduct Killer Interviews

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As a journalist, one of my most crucial skills is interviewing. It was covered in first year J-school where my teacher gave us the ins and outs, informing us on various techniques and gently forcing us into the procedure.

I remember my first interview. It was with one of my classmates and all I had to do was find out if anything unusual happened to him over the summer. He went into a story about ATM fraud, and how one day he found his account had about $3500 dollars in that came from out of nowhere. Several hours later the money was gone and he reported it to his bank. I was a complete newbie at interviewing, but I knew it was a good story and my teacher agreed.

Since that first interview I have done hundreds of source interviews in person, over the phone, and via email. Interviewing can be a time consuming process, but when done correctly a good source interview can improve a blog post by adding valuable information and colour. If you’re doing journalism for a newspaper, website, or magazine, you need multiple sources to make a balanced story.

Many elements and techniques go into conducting a great interview. Here are a few tips to help you in the quest for juicy quotes.

 

FINDING SOURCES

 

Find the highest ranking sources possible

The purpose of finding sources is to add authority to your work, so you want to get the most authoritative sources possible. For example, once I was writing a piece on the top 10 streets in Toronto that should have bike lanes. To decide on the list, I interviewed seven different sources and weighed all of their input. I interviewed cycling advocates, bike store owners, politicians, and urban planners for the assignment. What really made the article, however, was my interview with Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner. She is a high profile individual and being the top dog in city planning around these parts, she was the best person I could have spoke too.

Thanks to the internet, it’s easy to find sources. Figure out who would be the best authority on the subject your covering and search them out online.

 

Be nice to the gatekeepers

Gatekeepers are what we journos call the media relations and PR people. It’s their job to be the first line of defense in screening out unwanted callers. It’s also their job to set up appointments and connect you to sources. You will likely have to be patient as long as a day to more than a week, but gatekeepers are essential in connecting you. Always be courteous and succinct when you speak to them. Know what you are going to say ahead of time and explain yourself clearly.

For me, the opening line is usually something like, “Hello this is Chris Riddell with x magazine and I’m doing a story on y story. I need to talk with source name for 10 or so minutes on this. Is he/she available?”

Gatekeepers are your friends, and having good relationships with them will go a long way. I often find myself dealing with the same relations people in many of my stories.

 

Know your sources

Before interviewing anyone, it’s always prudent to do a little background research on who they are, what their background is, and what their viewpoints are. Preparation is one of the keys to a successful interview, and if you go into it blind you might have a bad time.

 

DURING THE INTERVIEW

 

Develop a rapport first

When you sit down to interview someone, don’t just leap right into the questioning. As the interviewer you want to make the person feel comfortable around you so they can open up. That’s when the good quotes and information start coming. Chat them up a little bit first with some small talk and try to find some common ground. Don’t spend too much time on this, though, you don’t want to be too buddy-buddy with them. Once it feels like they’ve settled in and a certain level of trust is reached, then it’s time to start with the questions.

 

Ask open-ended questions

Try to stay away from yes/no questions. Ask questions that make them think for a second and give you insight into what your story is about. Ask them about things they know and are passionate about.

Once I had to do a Q&A interview with a Shant Mardirosian, the owner of Burger’s Priest, one of the best burger joints in Toronto. Someone from BlogTO did a Q&A with him before and the results were, well, not great. His answers were all very terse, so I had to figure out a way to get him talking.

In the interview, we talked about his plans for expansion and why he started a burger joint, but I also knew that he was a devout Christian and was going to be a priest but dropped out of seminary school to go into the restaurant business. At Burger’s Priest there are passages of scripture on the wall, so I decided to ask home about what they mean and if the new restaurant would have the same passages. He lit up when I asked him about this, and the juicy quotes started flowing.

 

Cover the six Ws

It’s also a good idea to have a list of questions ready before you start the interview so you know what our going to ask. I like to have at least 5 or 6 good questions ready on my notepad beforehand, that way I’m not stumbling and trying to figure out what to say. Whenever I’m writing my list of questions I refer to the six Ws (who, what, where, why, how, when) and make sure I have them all covered where necessary. Starting a question with one of the Ws makes it a lot easier to come up with open ended questions.

 

Be prepared to follow up

During the interview, you need to be attentive to your source and let them know your paying attention. Oftentimes during an interview a source might mention something that could tip you off on a great detail or bit of colour that you can add to the story. Be on the lookout for these signals and be ready to probe a little deeper. You never know when a breaking angle or even an idea for another story might come up in the middle of an interview.

 

It takes practise to develop your own interviewing style. It can be nerve wracking and intimidating to interview high ranking public officials, sort of like the time I interviewed both the CEO of Infrastructure Ontario and the Ontario Minister of Transportation in person at Queen’s Park, easily the highest profile interview I’ve done yet. The anxiety will go away the more you conduct interviews. Always remember that you are the one in control of the situation and you have to retain professionalism at all times. Stay calm, pay attention, and do your homework. You’ll be fine.

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