Being a good journalist isn?t just about writing. Before you can write, you need to get information. One the most useful, but also trickiest, ways to get information is through interviewing relevant people. Here are some tips for getting the best out of your interviews.
Good preparation is the key to a successful interview. Do some research before heading into the interview. Find out as much as possible about the topic of your article in general, and your interviewee specifically. When you arrange the interview, you could even ask your interviewee to suggest some relevant documents to look at beforehand. They will most likely be impressed with your dedication and may even give you some reading material.
Be sure to define the goal of the interview beforehand. Do you need specific facts, a revealing quote or the re-enactment of an event? The type of article you?re going to write will heavily influence the aim of your interviews, so try to conceptualise what your article is going to look like.
Prepare a list of questions to take into the interview. Even if you have lots of questions in your mind as you think about the story, when you find yourself in the interview, you may be distracted or nervous. Never assume that you?ll remember everything. Have more rather than fewer questions prepared. You may not use all of them, but having them will give you confidence and will ensure that you don?t miss any important angles.
Put them at ease
An important part of interviewing is making your subject feel comfortable so that they?ll share more easily. However, you also have a job to do and you don?t want to get caught up in chit chat.
Before the interview formally begins, you can spend a few minutes in small talk, letting the subject get used to you. Be clear about when the actual interview is starting, so that you can both focus on the matter at hand. Start with non-threatening issues. Talk about some background issues, for example, to build up a rapport. Then you can lead into the more sensitive issues as they start to open up.
As in a conversation between friends, listen carefully to what is being said. Don?t be too focused on what you?re going to ask next, but rather pay close attention to the information your subject is giving you. Try to keep your questions flowing in a natural way, allowing each question to be a reaction to the subject?s last statement.
Ask open-ended questions
Try to avoid questions that could result in simple "yes' or "no' answers. You want to get the person talking, so give them something to talk about. Start your questions with phrases like "Tell me about.' or "How did you feel when.'.
If you are struggling to get them to open up, you could also go the "devil?s advocate' route, pretending to criticise the person?s actions or views. This will most likely elicit a strong response from them and help to get to the heart of their feelings on the matter.
Be polite, but stay in control
Treat your interviewee with the utmost respect at all times. That said, there may be occasions when you need to interrupt them or be a bit pushy, and you should feel free to do so, in a courteous manner. If you don?t understand something they said, ask for a clarification. If you feel they did not answer your question sufficiently, ask it again and tell them specifically what kind of information you need.
If they have descended into a monologue on an irrelevant topic, stop them and get them back on track. Don?t allow yourself to be intimidated or sidetracked. You need to take charge of the meeting, even if the other person is in a position of power.
Give them the final word
When you have reached the end of the interview, don?t just pack up your things and leave. Ask your subject how they think it went, and if there is anything else they?d like to add. It?s possible that they had something to say that you didn?t think to ask about, or that they feel unsatisfied with an answer they gave and want to expand on it. You might be surprised at the gems of information you could have missed had you wrapped the interview up too quickly.
To learn more about writing feature articles, consider the part-time University of Cape Town (CFMS) Feature Writing short course, presented online throughout South Africa. Call Amy-Jane on 021 447 7565 or visit GetSmarter for more information.