Writer: Teresa Madaleno
Aside from people asking for advice on writing, I am often asked the question: How can I become a good interviewer? I have had young journalists, human resource professionals, law enforcers, health professionals, students and business managers ask me to teach them how to be better at interviewing.
To teach interviewing is difficult, but here are some tips that can help you to really connect with people.
- Prepare– this is the most important part of the interviewing process. You have to study up on the subject’s background. Large business organizations and some news organizations have a staff whose job is to collect background information. Not everyone has the luxury of a staff to collect background so do your homework yourself if you have to. Your background research will not only familiarize you with the subject, it will give you confidence going into a conversation, as well as make your subject more comfortable about opening up to you.
- Ditch the notes: Many people make the mistake of carrying their research notes to the interview and clutching on to them like they are a life preserver. Don’t do that – get rid of those notes once you have read over them. It is best to take a more casual approach and allow the conversation to flow naturally. Having those notes with you can be a distraction. For example, what if the interview subject says something really intriguing, but you are hung up on the next point in your background notes and don’t pick up on this great opportunity to dive in and ask a question based on what you just heard?
- Focus on connecting: Good interviewers are able to make people feel at ease. When a person feels at ease, they are more likely to talk and reveal interesting tid-bits about themselves. One way to make people comfortable is to match their mood during the interview. For example, if they seem like they want to be serious- you should be serious, if they seem like they are high energy – you should use high energy. Matching their mood, tone, energy level, language style; both verbal and body language, will go a long way in helping secure a good connection.
- Empathize : It has always been thought that reporters and people who hold powerful corporate positions don’t care about people. They just care about getting the job done. If you show people a little understanding when you are having a conversation with them, they are more likely to open up to you.
- Absorb your surroundings: Whether the interview takes place in an office, a house, or at some other location, glance around. There could be books, trophies, and photos etc. that reveal something about your subject and will spurn questions.
- Establish ground rules: People use the term “off the record” a lot, but sometimes they don’t fully understand it. In other cases, they may understand what the term means, but once you discuss with them what you’d like to include in your writing or report and exactly how you would present it, they change their minds.
Good interviewing skills are important in building new relationships, gathering information or just becoming a good conversationalist.
The best questions to ask are those that are open-ended. They begin with How? What? Where? When? Why? They encourage expansive answers. One of the things I can remember from my days of teaching college journalism was how students would make the mistake of asking “yes” or “no” questions. Here is an example…
Journalism student: “Did it feel good rescuing the dog from the frigid waters of the lake?”
Interview subject “Yes”.
Journalism Student: “Were you worried you were going to drown along with the dog?”
Interview subject: “Yes”.
Journalism student: “Were you glad when you made it to shore?”
Interview subject: “Yes”.
Not too riveting.
This would be a better approach…
Journalism student: “What did rescuing the dog in those frigid water feel like?”
Interview subject: “It was freezing, but I am glad I went in and I am so relieved that I was able to reach him.”
Journalism student: “What was going through your mind as you ran into the water to rescue the dog? Why did you do it?”
Interview subject: “I just knew I had to reach the little guy. I used to have a dog and know what it is like to lose a pet.”
Journalism student: “Tell me how you felt when you realized that both you and the dog were safe on shore?”
Interview subject: “It all happened so fast, but I was happy it all worked out. I’m just glad I spotted the little guy and was able to help.”
It’s important to remember that we are human and can make mistakes. In an interview situation, it is okay to edit yourself. In other words, you can say ‘Excuse me, but that was not a great question, let me put in another way…’
Interviewing can be a lot of fun; it does not have to be a chore. You never know where an interview can lead and that is what can make it exciting.