Drawing people out - getting them to speak from the heart - is one of the journalist's most challenging tasks. Interviewing is both an art and a science.
Good interviewers get better material because they are able to put the people they interview at ease, establish a rapport, and win their trust. They do this by showing a genuine interest in what the person they are interviewing has to say, focusing on being a better listener than a talker, and remaining alert for information to pursue.
Demonstrate an interest in your interviewee by asking some getacquainted questions before plunging into the interview. Without being a spy, look for obvious things about the person that you can inquire about. Is that a Harley-Davidson in your garage? Did I read correctly that you once were an Air Force nurse? Does that Oriole logo on the wall mean you are a Baltimore fan? Such questions not only help your subject relax for the interview, but also may reveal clues about motivation and personal history.
That's the "art" of the interview.
The "science" part of interviewing is an acquired skill. Know the basics and you will, much more often than not, come away with a successful interview. What we want is for the people we are interviewing to open up beyond a "yes/no interview" and technical explanation of a topic - we want our interview subjects to reveal their motivations, hopes, dreams and fears.
Here are some tips for getting a good interview:
Prepare. With vast amounts of information on the internet and on various databases, it's easier than ever before to gather a dossier of information on a subject. Double check your facts and figures.
A five-person staff gathers information for Tim Russert of Meet the Press so he is thoroughly prepared for interviews. A Washington Post piece on Russert said his "prosecutorial approach -'you said this in 1991, let's put it on the screen' - turns each interview into a deposition.'"
Russert said he developed the technique because "it became so tiresome having these trivial discussions where the guest says 'I didn't say that' or 'you took it out of context.' I said 'let's end all that - put it on the screen.'"
Most broadcast journalists consider themselves lucky if they work in a place with one researcher. Still, in the electronic age, we have little excuse for not researching interview subjects thoroughly.
Plan. The people we interview typically fall into one of several categories: the executive or leader, mid-level manager, line worker, official spokesperson, witness, victim, accused or hostile participant. The information and perspective available from people in each of these groups is vastly different. Know what information you want - and can get - from each. For example, the line worker - the ordinary working bloke - likely will have a keen perspective on how a project is working in the field. But that same worker may be a poor source on the broad company objectives.
Brief the subject. With its array of lights, microphones, cameras and other equipment, television newsgathering can be intimidating, especially to those who are undergoing their first encounter with the electronic beast. Take time to explain what the equipment does. Engage your subject in conversation before the formal interview begins and it will be much easier to shift into the real thing.
Develop an interviewing style that fits you. Sam Donaldson blusters and scolds. Diane Sawyer is a blend of an older protecting sister and probing aunt. Rather than copying someone else's approach, develop techniques that work for you.
Build up to the tough questions. Ask backgrounder questions, probe for values, or ask for a chronology - anything to ease into tougher questions.
Probe for answers beyond cliches. People's motivations often are complex. They may indeed have been driven to report their company's practice of dumping toxic chemicals because of their concern for the environment, but were they also at least partially motivated by the reward? They may not tell us that directly; but if we ask what they plan to do with the money we certainly will get a clue.
Avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or no. Also, avoid complex or multiple-part questions. Short questions are best. Why did you do that? How did this happen? Use silence to your advantage, especially when asking a tough question. The subject may say; "I don't want to talk about that. II Say nothing for a few moments - you will be amazed at how many people are uncomfortable with silence and will rush to fill it with an explanation that moments ago they said they would not give.
Realize that ifs a natural human tendency to coach - to explain what you know. Most people thoroughly enjoy being cast as an expert. Take advantage of that desire: Ask people to simplify. Never go away until you comprehend the answer. Preface a question with "Can you help me understand .... " Be like Colombo, a police investigator played by Peter Falk years ago in a television series. He played dumb - forever asking people to explain things. They did, and he solved the case every week.
Minimize your own role. We're listeners; the people we are interviewing are the talkers.
Avoid responding verbally or with head nods to your subject's answers. The "umm's" and "I see's" will be picked up by the microphone, marring the interview tape. And on tape, head nods will look like agreement, which is an image we do not want to convey. As journalists, we're neutral observers.
Have an alternative if everything you plan goes wrong.
Next Month: Difficult Interviews
Excepted from Broadcast News Writing for Professionals, 2005 The Marion Street Press.