Conduct an Interview Like a Journalist

Edited by Sean, Dougie, Nuance

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The first time I was ever asked to do an interview, I figured it couldn't be that hard, but boy was I wrong. Conducting a good interview, particularly if you are doing it for a website or magazine as a journalist, can be quite challenging. There are many things to consider beyond just the questions you need to ask, and what you need to know about interviewing someone in order to get the best out of your interviewee. Take a look at this guide to see just what you can do to make your interview shine.

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Conduct a Journalistic Interview

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Ready to jump out in the world of journalism and to start asking the right questions that will yield juicy results? Initially, I wasn't, and my first interview required quite a bit of editing and guidance from my editor-in-chief. As simple as the ideas and guidelines below may seem, they will go a long way to helping you look and act professionally in that first interview, while also getting you good results.

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Only Interview by Email as a Last Resort

Sometimes doing an interview via email can yield some pretty great results, but other than group interviews it is the worst way to interview someone. Being able to be there in person, face to face, with your interviewee is ideal since that way you can tweak your questions based on their on the spot responses and their reactions to the questions you ask. If you can't do face to face, then opt for a Skype, Facetime or a phone interview. If you have no other options and must do the interview by email, remember:

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  • Responses will likely be less genuine since the interviewee has time to carefully tailor each answer, which is good in some ways but may give you something less useful.
  • Follow-up questions are less likely to happen and won't be as pertinent since in person you would immediately be able to ask those questions to try to refine an answer.
  • If the interviewee is busy, they may just give you a short answer on every question, while if they tried to do that in person you could respond by trying to open them up.
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Don't Ask the Obvious

Duh right? Actually, no, because without a lot of research, it is often hard to tell if you are asking questions that have already been answered before or is public knowledge. Whenever you think that one of your questions might be too common then you can either:

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    Search Google, or use a search engine to find answers for that specific question in relation to your interviewee
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    This will let you know if you should drop it for being too widely known.
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    Take that commonly asked question and put your own spin on it that will require the interviewee to provide you with new information or a new perspective
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    Then again, you could always do both of those things and you would probably be better off for it
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It always helps to do a little bit of research on the interviewee's website (or company website if they are represented a company or product) to see what kind of information is readily available, specifically check to see if there is an FAQ. Asking about anything obviously represented on their website will make you look ill-prepared and would likely make the interviewee a bit bored since you aren't challenging them.

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Don't Just Ask Closed-Ended Questions

Closed questions serve a purpose when you are trying to get an answer about a very specific thing, but if you want your interviewee to elaborate or branch off that initial question, then you need to focus on open-ended questions. Close-Ended questions will often only leave you with a Yes or No answer, while open-ended questions almost always require more than a two or three word response. Let's take a look at an example of an open-ended and a closed-ended question:

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Open-Ended Question Example: Why is your work at VisiHow so important?

Closed-Ended Question Example: Is it true that you have worked for VisiHow for two years?

As you can see, the closed-ended question will give you a straight up fact, because it is either going to be true or not true, and it will allow you to ask follow-up questions, but open-ended questions will lead to a more breathy answer right from the start. They each have their own purpose and ideally you'd have a fair share of both that complement each other while also allowing the interviewee to feel like they aren't always answering hard questions.

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Be Personal and Inviting

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When you are interviewing someone, especially for the first and in person, you don't want to just say hi my name is Rick and why have you been screwing over your company for five years? To help your interviewee relax a little and open up you should:

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    Have your first question be soft and personal, like did you start working for this company right out of college
    ?
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  • If you have time, and this is only for non-email interviews, ask about where they grew up or where they went to school.
  • If you have something relate-able, you can try to share that with them in order to make them feel like you aren't just some random unknown person. For instance, if interviewing a developer and you used to work with developers then you break the ice by talking about that previous experience.
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Those are just examples, but the idea is that you want to build some kind of rapport with the interviewee before hitting them with the tough questions. If they are relaxed and comfortable then they are more likely to give you more elaborate responses.

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Pay Attention and Listen

When you are doing a personal interview you may miss out on the most important topic if you aren't listening to exactly what the interviewee is doing. If you noticed them avoiding a topic, skirting around an answer or changing their tone in regards to a specific topic then you will be able to figure out where you need to push. Trying to pry answers out an interviewee is often necessary for getting the answers your readers want, and if you don't pay close to your interviewee then you may miss the cues that could lead to that.

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This sounds simple to do, but being able to notice cues, react to them and tailor new questions based on what was just said; is what makes an interviewer great. Being able to get your interviewee to talk about the topics they are avoiding is challenging and you have to approach it in a smart, firm, but none-aggressive manner, or that may stop them from talking about the topic all together.

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Tailor Your Questions Based on Your Audience

If you are a new journalist to some magazine, newspaper or website, then this may be a hefty challenge if you haven't interacted with your reader base. When you are constructing your questions for the interview, go to your company's website (or physical magazine/newspaper) and look up anything related to the company, product or person that you are interviewing. In those articles, you will not only learn more about your interviewee, but you can see how your reader base reacted to them and what questions they may have about them. Here are some related tips:

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    This idea also applies to the questions you may be creating on the spot, like follow-up questions.
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    Constantly think about your audience when you are deciding what to focus your energies on, like what hard topics to push
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    Pushing an interviewee for answers on touchy subjects is tough, but often necessary
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    However, don't risk pushing for an answer if you aren't certain if your audience would be interested.
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    Have a plan of action, but be adaptable, and allow yourself to change direction if it gets really interesting
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    Often, you'll notice an interview going in an interesting direction, until the interviewer stops, to ask some mundane question. This happens when the interviewer isn't listening, but is too focused on his or her own agenda.
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Final Tips

Conducting a fantastic interview can be tough, but when you take into considerations the above suggestions, you will have a little bit of an upper hand. None of this helps when it comes to creating the questions themselves, which can be a tough task on its own, but it will help you get results from your interviewee while also making sure you don't come off as inexperienced. Lastly, If you are about to conduct your first interview then swallow a little pride and ask for help from fellow journalists who have more experience. Just having someone else take a look at your questions, someone who not only knows about the topic, but the process as well, will help you refine the entire focus of your interview.

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As always, if you have any questions about any of this, feel free to ask. Best of luck with your interview!

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If you have problems with any of the steps in this article, please post in the comments section below.

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Categories : Communications & Education

Recent edits by: Dougie, Sean

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