An interview is a conversation with a purpose. We might add that it is a controlled conversation. It could be defined as the art of asking the right questions and getting the right answers. Interviewing is the one of the most basic and often the most intimidating tasks in journalism.
It is odd that so much emphasis is put on teaching journalists how to write an article when that skill is useless without also teaching them how to develop strong interview techniques. The finished product may be a piece of writing that you craft, but the material a result of the interviews you conduct.
The art of interviewing is as personal as the art of writing. Every reporter brings a different style and skill to the job of interviewing. But all interviews are designed to accomplish one mission: Get information to advance a story. This is best achieved with organisation and preparation, whether it is a five-minute phone interview or a two-hour confrontational affair.
In similarity to any creative profession, you use your perception to re-interpret the world around you. You try to engage an audience with ideas and issues. And then you create something meaningful from all the incoherent information and noise out there.
You would have realised by now that a far more important piece of the journalist's craft than is given credit to is the interview itself. After all, a good news story provides information, and that information needs to come from somewhere, or someone. A news hound may know the facts to be true, or plainly knows the significance of those facts because he has been following the same beat for 20 years. But even then he needs to be able to attribute the words and context to an independent authority. That means the reporter needs to coax people in the know to spill their secrets to him, and to trust him or her enough that he can attach those people's names to the secrets they spill.
But here is the catch. Effective journalism may to a large extent also be dependent on a total stranger's co-operation and participation. Fortunately, interviewing is an art that can be developed. Some journalists are natural-born interviewers, while others never get entirely comfortable with the idea of asking strangers nosy questions. Interviewing is a vital skill for any journalist. It is one of the most important ways to gather information and create content for a story. Almost all stories are based on some sort of interviewing. It is, doubtless, considered an essential trump when engaged in the story chase.
Yet there is no foolproof strategy to ensure success in controlling an interview. But if you have prepared carefully and are armed with a set of questions following a definite storyline, you might feel you have done your part. But no, not really because no one said it was going to be a piece of cake. Remember the complete responsibility is in your court. To have the questions is one thing. To get full answers in the depth you need is something else. One of the major problems, therefore, is to keep the interviewee talking.
The best method of interviewing in my estimation, is the direct approach. People will answer your questions most of the time, if they know what you want. For the most part people want to be helpful and you just need to tell them how they can. One of the secrets is to learn how to approach the interviewee from the point of view of his or her own interests. It is best to tell your subject what you want to know with the assurance that your story can be to his or her advantage.
To start, do as much research as you can and prepare a list of questions to ask. Once the interview starts, try to establish a rapport with your source, but don't waste your time. If your source starts to ramble on about things that are clearly of no use to you, do not be afraid to gently - but firmly - steer the conversation back to the topic at hand.
Remember that from the start to the end of his or her career, the journalist is an asker of questions, a listener and a recorder of replies. And since interviewing is based on meeting people, you can help yourself by learning all you can about the psychology of human behaviour. You do this by simply studying people. That is by observing them, watching their every movement and gesture. Look closely at what they do. Then try to surmise why they do it and what makes them do it. Finally attempt to perceive what results they achieve and how they feel about those results.
In his or her quest for the news the journalist must effectively be able to play the role of prying detective, successful salesperson, probing psychiatrist, wily diplomat, confidential friend, cross-examining attorney and querying quiz-master all rolled into one.
Because no two people are alike, no two interviewing situations would be alike. The journalist must be resourceful, adaptable, quick and ready. Always have plenty of questions prepared and make certain they are well-planned questions. Interviewing is at once an art and a science. A good interview feels like a conversation, but moves relentlessly toward the relevant truth. The successful interviewer will capture the scattered memories of the interview subject by using techniques that resemble hypnosis or by asking questions like: How do you know that?
Good interview technique requires practice so don't expect to master it immediately.
As you gain more experience interviewing, you will hone your own techniques. Your personality as an interviewer will also play a significant role in how you develop your approach. The journalist who can put someone at ease enough to express themselves in a way that many others have never seen them do is a gift. It is a gift which is often not only the ticket to a great article but also a wonderful reward for the writer as well.
And, one final note to reiterate what I have always been telling my journalist students and trainees: I too still have a lot to learn. Don't we all?