I continue today with another edition of Rick’s Rules, my lists of professional development suggestions for journalism students and veteran journalists alike.
TOP TEN TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE INTERVIEWING
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
There is no substitute for adequate preparation — and no excuse for “winging it” in an interview. You should become an expert on the interview subject and the subject matter. If you show that you know your stuff, you are more likely to gain the respect and confidence of the interviewee.
2. Choreograph the interview in advance.
Plan out what you hope to accomplish and the series of questions that will get you from Point A to Point Z. Also plan out what you will do if the interviewee tries to hijack the interview. (See below.)
A major mistake made by reporters is that they don’t pay attention to what the interviewee is saying; they just wait to ask the next question on their list. It’s very, very important to listen attentively. Your interview subject may tell you something that leads to a valuable new avenue of questioning.
4. Follow up.
Persistence usually pays off. If somebody tries to evade your question, try again. Depending on the situation, you can decide whether to rephrase the question or simply tell them that they haven’t answered the question. If your interview subject is evading the question, you want to let them know that you know that they aren’t answering.
5. Word your questions carefully.
You don’t want a “yes” or “no” answer, especially for audio or video. Ask a question in a manner designed to elicit a descriptive answer. It is embarrassing when you look at your notebook after an interview and you see that the answer you wrote down was “no” rather than “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
6. Know when to be the tiger and when to be the fox.
It’s important to gauge the personality of your interview subject and know when to be aggressive, when to be empathetic and when to admit your ignorance. Doing the right thing at the right time can pay off — big time. Doing the wrong thing can ruin an interview.
6. Don’t assume anything.
Ask Ms. Smith how to spell her name. It might be “Smythe.” Ask for job titles and spellings of home towns, spouses and employers’ names (if you are not certain). When possible, it’s good to double-check via a Google search to confirm on their personal or business web sites.
7. Know your subject material and don’t fake it.
You are supposed to be prepared. Remember that. But if you don’t know something, admit it. Don’t say that you’ve read a book — or a report, or an article — if you haven’t. If the interview subject believes you are fudging, it harms your credibility.
8. Don’t let the interview get hijacked.
When your interviewee says “that’s a good question, but the important point is….,” he or she is trying to change the subject and deliver a pre-packaged spin. Make sure to return as soon as possible to the questions you want to ask.
9. Don’t talk too much.
If you have a 15-minute interview, you want almost all of it to come from the mouth of your interview subject. Don’t go off on tangents or monologues. Don’t engage in too much chit chat before you get to your questions, unless you have plenty of time for the interview.
10. Appearances matter.
Look and sound professional. Don’t dress inappropriately or chew gum. Don’t smell of smoke or alcohol. It may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many reporters mess up their interview before uttering their first word.