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Tag Archives: Interviews

This post is about conducting interviews, so if you are a job hunter searching for “interviewing tips,” you might as well go back to your Google results and find a new link. I don’t have any advice for you.

But for those of you trying to refine your journalistic abilities, or those of you who are just trying to not sound like a fool during interviews, maybe I can give you a tip or ten.

After all, I know what it’s like to sound like a fool during interviews. I’ve listened to my recorded phone interviews, and it’s shameful to realize how often I’ve said “um” and how much I ramble through my questions.

Despite what you’ve seen from Barbara Walters or Larry King, interviewing people isn’t easy. It’s a skill that needs to be developed. Unless you’re Conan O’Brien, and you can just act goofy and make everyone laugh. But those are TV personalities, doing filmed interviews.

A writer interviewing a source need not worry about as many details. A writer only needs to worry about getting the information necessary for the article. With that in mind, here are the things I’ve learned (the hard way) over the last three years:

1. Don’t Act Too Professional
Professionalism is important, but if you try to act too official, you can make your interviewee uncomfortable. And when they get uncomfortable, they clam up. The answers get shorter, they feel the need to qualify every statement, and sometimes, they start trying to use big and impressive words.

Obviously, if you’re interviewing President Obama, first of all, congratulations to you (and you really shouldn’t be reading my interviewing tips), then you should be as professional as possible. This is true whenever you’re interviewing someone who routinely deals with the media. When I interviewed someone from the FCC, for example, I tried to be more professional than I do when I interview a pastor who is less accustomed to interacting with the media.

But if your subject is not a celebrity or a PR person, acting too professional could make them nervous.

2. Don’t Act Too Unprofessional

Acting down-to-earth can backfire. This happened to me once. I was interviewing a man whose name I will omit, because, well, he frightened me once, and I have no doubt that he could do it again.

As it turns out, he was a very professional man—and during the course of the interview, as I was trying to be down-to-earth and friendly, he began to question my professionalism. I heard it in his tone. And then he started grilling me with questions. He wanted to know who assigned the article to me, what articles I’d written in the past, etc.

So by trying to make him feel comfortable, I made him question my credibility. And you never want that.

I even got a semi-nasty follow up email from him in which he talked about journalistic integrity and a host of other things.

You can bet, if I could have started that interview over again, I’d have been as professional as possible.

3. Keep Them Focused
As the writer, you know what angle you’re pursuing. The interviewee knows their subject matter (that’s why you called them, right?), but they aren’t always accustomed to the angle on which you’re focusing. Or more often, they might be passionate about one aspect of their business/ministry/etc., and that’s what they’ll want to talk about, even if that’s not the aspect about which you’re writing.

I recently wrote an article about fair-trade coffee, and one of the women I interviewed worked for Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee—which partners with a community in Rwanda that grows their coffee beans. So during the interview, she spoke a lot about partnering with that community, and it was fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, most of the information didn’t fit with my article, since I was writing about what churches need to know about fair-trade coffee. Land of a Thousand Hills is just one option for those churches, and, interesting as it was, I didn’t need to know those details about the community in Rwanda.

So if I had been more aware of this during the interview, I could have saved this woman some time (not to mention my own time), by redirecting her back to questions that would more directly pertain to my article.

4. ALWAYS Prepare Questions in Advance

This is critical. When I first started doing interviews, I always did this.

And then I got lazy. Or overconfident. And I started thinking, I don’t need to write questions down. I’ll just go with the flow and see where the conversation goes.

If you attempt the “go with the flow” method, you too will be burned. Eventually. You’ll interview a man with a penchant for one-word answers, leaving you no time to think about what the logical next question should be, and you’ll find yourself saying “Okay, ummmm, can you, ummmm, ummm, maybe explain that in, uh, a little more, uhmmm, can you give me any more details?” while you’re mentally kicking yourself for not preparing any fallback questions.

Sure, there is something to be said about the spontaneity of going with the flow. It makes the interview feel more like a conversation (which puts the other person at ease) and less like an interrogation (even though that would be more professional).

There are times when I’ve gotten away with doing an interview without a list of prepared questions, but I’ve learned that it’s always good to have a few questions on hand. Even if you don’t need them.

5. Do Your Research
In addition to preparing questions, know details about the person you’re interviewing. This is imperative.

For example, when I interviewed Michael Aukofer (a Music Director from my old church), I knew he had worked with Phil Keaggy and Rich Mullins. This was important because it helped establish his credibility. Knowing he had worked with well-known musicians, it changed the questions I asked him. Also, these are details Michael probably wouldn’t have shared. He’s a humble man, and I doubt he would have mentioned these accomplishments.

Also, if you’re contacting someone who is an expert in a certain field, the questions you ask will reveal how knowledgeable you are about the subject matter. And if it’s clear you don’t know anything (and have done little to no research), your interviewee will be annoyed. Especially if they have to explain details that are obvious to them. The more you know prior to the interview, the more time you can spend focusing on the most important questions (and avoid annoying the person you’re interviewing).

6. Ask Stupid Questions
Yes, that’s right. Ask the most obvious questions you can imagine. Why? Because it will give you the most usable quotes.

Referring again to the article I wrote about fair-trade coffee, everyone I talked to wanted to share specifics about the communities growing their coffee. They talked about processing the beans, finding local roasters, the intricacies of coffee, and other technical things. Being immersed in coffee (not literally, although that might appeal to some people), it was natural for them to think about the details and the specifics. And by the time I was doing my fourth interview, I realized, Wow, not one of these people has given me a good quote about the overall value of fair-trade coffee.

So my next question was, “Do you think a church should buy fair-trade coffee?”

Now realize I’m asking this question to someone who works for a fair-trade coffee company (a fair-trade coffee company that specifically markets to churches). Her response could have been, “Duh.” And that would have been justified.

Her answer, however, was a little more articulate. She said, “I don’t think there’s any reason why a church shouldn’t go with fair-trade coffee. Of all the people who should be concerned about the other end—where our coffee comes from—it should be the church. To turn a blind eye to that shows a very deep lack of concern. I feel like the church should be at the forefront of that.”

If you ask me, that’s a great quote. It shows her passion for the ministry aspect of fair-trade coffee, and I wouldn’t have gotten that quote if I hadn’t asked a stupid question.

7. Be Open to Email Interviews
Personally, I love email interviews. I realize it removes all spontaneity, and it eliminates the personal connection between interviewer/interviewee—and it also restricts the potential for great follow-up questions.

But emailing questions has a lot of benefits. For one, it gives the interviewee a chance to look over all the questions before they answer any of them, helping them understand the angle. So they will be less likely to veer off on a tangent, and in the end, their answers will be more directly related to the angle you’re pursuing.

Another plus, they can edit their responses before they send them.

In a phone interview (or an in-person interview), people always abandon sentences halfway through. For example, if I ask, “How’s the weather today?” (what a boring interview that would be), a typical answer would look something like this…

“Oh you know, the weather is…it’s actually colder than I—but, I guess it’s better than yesterday, but it’s weather, you know?”

Unless you’re typing their response verbatim, you don’t even notice that they abandoned two sentences before answering the question. In context, we have a way of signifying that we’re starting over, but on paper…not so much.

But if they’re typing their answer, there’s no way they’re hitting the “Send” button on something like that. So with emailed questions, the answers come back cleaner, and the quotes are more usable.

Also, busy people are less likely to commit to time on the phone. Recently, I interviewed pastor Mark Driscoll. Well, kind of. I submitted questions to his assistant, and he forwarded them to Driscoll. Driscoll’s assistant then sent me Driscoll’s answers. I wasn’t going to get any phone time with him, but he made the time to send an email. Those quotes featured prominently in the beginning of my article, and without email, I wouldn’t have gotten them.

8. Do “Short” Interviews
When I request an interview with someone, I always say it’s going to be a “short” or “quick” interview. Don’t think this article is their top priority. If the interview is going well, or if there is more to be said, they will talk longer. A couple months ago, I talked to a man for nearly 90 minutes. This wasn’t a short interview at all, but it turned out really well. I had no idea that it would last 90 minutes, but even if I had known, I would have never asked for that much time. Very few people would be willing to commit to that much time.

So always plan to make the interview short, and if they have more time to give, keep asking questions until you’re done or until they say they have to go (the latter has not happened to me yet).

9. If They Ask, Let Them Review the Article Before It Prints
I know there are mixed feelings about this, even among the other Christian writers/editors with whom I’ve rubbed shoulders. Some people believe, if the quotes aren’t being used out of context, then there’s no need to run the article by the interviewee (because it will most likely prompt them to revise their words, or be nit-picky about details that aren’t all that pertinent). If someone asks me if they can see the article before it prints, I always send it to them. I tend to think this person doesn’t trust the media, and I don’t mind putting them at ease. Also, if they’ve taken the time to talk to me, the least I can do is assure them that I won’t be taking their quotes out of context.

I do know at least one story of a former colleague having an interviewee object to the article. Even though the quotes were used fairly, he didn’t want the piece to run. And they had to sort that out. In that case, it would have been much easier to run the piece without allowing the interviewee to review it.

So I guess it’s a personal preference, but I’m willing to extend that courtesy whenever I’m asked.

10. Don’t Be Afraid to Follow Up
I always end an interview by saying, “If I have any additional questions, I’ll shoot you a quick email or give you a call.” I’ve never had anyone object to this. If they’ve done the interview, they’re invested in the outcome. They want their quotes to be used effectively and fairly, so if you are unclear about anything during the writing process, I think the interviewee would prefer to get a follow up email/call if it ensures that the final piece is well done.

I hope these tips will be helpful to you. And if you ever do interview President Obama, and you use my tips, I expect to be compensated for it. I’ll accept cash, cookies, or a flight on Air Force One.

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