Two Golden Rules for Interviewers

September 30, 2009

My cohorts and I are in the thick of the expert-interview stage of our future-oriented research projects and today our professor, a former newspaper journalist, gave a slide presentation of interviewing tips. An ex-print journalist myself, I received similar advice in high school, at internships, in college and in the workplace.

Still, a refresher never hurts. Familiarity breeds complacency. On deadline, one adopts shortcuts, and some of them stick.

Research ahead of time. Have a backup plan for if technology fails. Save hardball questions for the end. Always get contact information for follow-ups. All tried and true.

Two of my favorite tips are also among the simplest:

First, leverage the power of silence. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable for the interviewer, but, trust me, it’s even more uncomfortable for the subject. I used this technique at my last reporting job to get details on the relationship between a murder victim and the suspect before police were ready to announce them.

I was canvassing the apartment complex where the homicide occurred and came across a chatty older gentleman who seemed to know more than he was letting on. Sensing he was one of those people who enjoy the sound of their own voice, I kept him talking no matter the subject. Then, I asked what I came there to ask and waited. And waited. Sure enough, he spilled what he wasn’t ready to spill before. His information matched up perfectly with what the police would later release.

This technique is helpful not only for sensitive questions but also for complex ones. If a subject doesn’t answer immediately, it’s natural for the interviewer to assume something was wrong with the question and scale it back. Give the subject time to think things through. The point of an interview is to generate original, well-thought-out answers, not trite, off-the-cuff ones.

Second, before ending an interview, always ask something to the effect of, “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?” Usually, the source’s response will yield something of value. It’s not always groundbreaking, but, surprisingly often, it is. The source will point out an essential resource or raise an issue that completely reshapes the story.

A ridiculously open-ended question can even produce a bombshell. It did for me one Sunday afternoon working the cops shift at my first paper. The police beat required tracking disorder of all forms across a sprawling four-county area. Keeping an ear to the scanner and asking “Anything going on?” “Anything else?” over and over was pretty much the only way to do this. I made the first of two routine calls to one of several state police barracks on my call sheet and asked the routine question. “Any accidents, arrests, anything to report?

“Oh, you’re calling about the arrest from last night,” said the trooper on the other end of the line. “What do you want to know?”

I had no idea what arrest he was referring to but it was obvious it was newsworthy. “Umm,” I thought, before responding with more boilerplate, “Name, age, residence, location of the incident, the charge.”

Whether the trooper could tell that I was clueless I’ll never know. But the name was that of the county sheriff. The charge? Drunken driving.

Yes, preparation and tact are important, but the worst question can be the one never asked.

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