Getting the most out of an interview


Sometimes, I can’t sleep so I sit, bleary-eyed, and retrace the day’s events while my body struggles to stay awake. At times, I drive around town with the other night owls and insomniacs. A few years ago, this led me to a Wal-Mart at 1 in the morning where I bought party favors for my daughter’s fourth birthday. As I checked out, I started to grow exceptionally weary (and grouchy) as the older woman at the register worked slowly, taking more time than necessary to handle and scan the pointed party hats, the sound blowers, and the napkins. I could barely stand. I was impatient and about to blow — until she started telling me her story.

“Having a party,” she said softly. “Those are always fun. You know, I haven’t seen my grand-daughter for a few years. I really miss her.”

Nobody else was in line behind me, so she proceeded to tell a story about a young mother who believed her mother-in-law was getting too pushy and about a son who would not defend his mom. This woman said she was probably to blame, but she did not know how to solve the problem. She really missed her little grand-daughter.

I listened for about 10 minutes until somebody else came to the register, someone who was probably buying some late-night snacks or biding time until sleep overcame him as well. I hope the young guy also stopped to listen to this poor woman’s tale. Too often, we forget to listen — especially during interviews.

Journalists gather information through research, interviews and observation. But interviewing might be the most important skill of all. A sports reporter cannot just show up at a game, watch it, and then ask several general questions at the end — unless, of course, the reporter wants to write a story that makes editors’ eyes roll and readers’ eyes glass over. Sports journalists need to be prepared before heading out to a game, or walking over to a practice, or talking with a person for a profile story. We need to do some homework – and then be prepared to ask follow-up questions during the interview sessions.

Below, I have compiled some techniques that can help draw out significant information during your interviews. Consider why are you interviewing your source and what you want to get out of the interview. Hope this helps.

Do the research
Imagine taking a final exam without studying. (Nah, you’ve never done that.) A good interview requires significant research, where you read as much as you can on those you will speak with and on topics you will address. Great questions come from sweat and hard work. They do not come by staring at a blank page, thinking hard, and hoping a muse comes. Read everything related to the topic or the person to see what has been written beforehand in order to focus on the more interesting aspects of the story and to see what has not been covered so you can delve into that. Check newspaper archives and government sources. Also, do some background interviews to gather information. That might mean walking around a campus, speaking with those along the way, or it might mean informally talking with people who know the person you plan to interview.

The research may yield a perspective that is not typically addressed. Stephen Jay Gould, the noted natural historian, for example, adored baseball. That’s a topic that he preferred to speak about than the repeated questions about paleontology. I found out that Don Baylor loved to speak about the art of hitting, as did several other players on the Atlanta Braves. They spoke endlessly about hitting even though they were busy. I had to pull myself from them.

Frame your interview
People like to know why they are answering questions. Put the source at ease by letting them know about the subject matter. “Hi, I’m Joe Gisondi of the Daily Eastern News. We’re trying find out what students feel about some of the issues.” You might also tell them what you want to learn in this interview.

Ask the source to spell his name
This should be the first question, even if you have seen the name printed before. Game programs are especially bad at spellings. Once, we had a student on campus with a name that sounded like Fred. In reality, the student’s name was Phredd and the student was a female. You’ll come across many names that are spelled in varying ways, such as Jon/John, Sarah/Sara, Kristen/Kristin, and Kathy/Cathy.

Question everything
Do not just act as a stenographer, mindlessly scribbling down whatever anybody says. Rather, question anything that is unclear, unfamiliar and unverified. We are reporters first, which means verify everything. In many ways, interviewing is about listening, learning, and adapting.

Don’t ask questions to hear yourself talk
You are not the focus of the story. Don’t tell sources what you think; they don’t care. It’s about them. Bruce Selcraig of Sports Illustrated said, “Experts appreciate that you’ve done your homework and can ask intelligent questions, but they don’t want to hear you talk. Don’t try to impress them. Let them impress you.” You can set up questions, but don’t ask questions to hear yourself speak. Offer concise questions. Basic, simple questions solicit clear, lucid answers to even complex issues.

Get perspective
Interview people outside of the world in which you publish. Find out how the city budget in your town compares to those in other towns. And the budget at your college compares to others. Interview people in other areas so the reader can gain a better perspective on the news events. Speak with coaches and players at other schools. Call athletic directors in other conferences and other states. Ask questions that give the reader a better perspective on the news or the person profiled. Ask yourself, essentially, how does this all affect my readers?

Ask follow-up questions
Coaches say their pitchers threw perfectly, their quarterbacks were off the mark, their runners were fatigued and their teams were stale. But what do all these adjectives mean? Find out how and why the pitcher threw well. Did the pitcher mix it up better, throwing more off-speed pitches on 1-2 counts? Check with the catcher as well. Were the cross country runners tired because a bus broke down, because they ran three races in 10 days? Find out the reasons behind the statements. The follow-up question offers perspective and supplies answers.

Ask tough questions last
especially if you suspect the source will end the interview when you ask the question. That way you can get other information first.

Get specific details
Ask sources to expand on general statements, such as “the stadium was in bad shape.” Were bleacher boards cracking, pipes constantly bursting and rusted nails falling out of walls? Make the source prove his point so you can illustrate ideas to your readers. Details enable you to put the reader at the scene. That’s why you would keep focusing in on specifics when the source is inclined to give you general information. You never know when details will be important.

Tell me a story
Ask sources to tell you something specific. For example, don’t ask, “Why did you do it?” Instead, say “Tell me the reasons you did it.”

Ask sources to define jargon
I’m not an expert on environmental science so I would ask why the water in a lake is tannic and would ask for clarification in terms such as secci disk. That way I can offer information. If you are working on a music story, ask the musicians to describe or define terms such as “baroque” or “repertoire.” What do these mean to the reader? In sports, ask for definitions of sports terms. If you do not know what Fartlek training is, ask the cross country coach to explain it. If you do not know what a nickel package is, ask the football coach. They will appreciate that you want to learn more, that you will want to get it right. If you do not completely understand what the source said, ask him to repeat what he said. For example, if a sources says that music is “actually a textual painting of an artist’s poem,” you will definitely need to ask them how particularly this is so. I’m still perplexed by that quote.

Don’t lead with your questions
“Don’t you think…?” Most people like to be liked and will agree with you that the weather is great. They might answer the exact opposite five minutes later to be liked by another person. Information and response lack credibility.

Don’t act like an expert
You are an expert in journalism, not on the topic being discussed; otherwise, you would be getting interviewed.

Be bold
Call experts and celebrated people to get perspective and information. Call the President. You’ll be amazed how accessible people can be. The worst that can happen is you get stonewalled. The best is a great interview or source in a story. If you are working on an advance on an author, call the New York Times book reviewer or other noted authors in the field.

Be persistent
Keep people talking because you never know what you’ll hear. Plus, people may lower their defenses.

Nearly 10 years ago, tornadoes ravaged Central Florida, killing more than 30 people in the middle of the night. One of my student reporters could not believe the destruction as she walked around a trailer park in Kissimmee that was inundated with reporters and videographers. The woman running the park said she had a ban on reporters and then spoke for about five minutes, concluding that everything was “off the record.”

The reporter politely said she could not do that and cajoled this woman to talk some more. The woman eventually offered the correct spelling of her name before re-emphasizing that “everything was off the record.” Michelle kept the woman talking. Eventually, this woman discussed the loss of her home and her pet in the tornado. She could not have kids so the pet was like a child to her, the woman said. The lady then invited our reporter into the trailer to see her cat, where Michelle could observe this woman more.

The result:
“Joan Thomas bent over and pet her cat Harold, a white-footed calico.”
‘That’s my baby,’ she said, holding the spotted cat over her shoulder.’ ”

Persistence. Patience. Keep people talking in a friendly manner. Let them tell their stories

Ask for stories
Remember asking your parents to tell you a story? Same thing. We all love hearing stories. Ask about the minute details about the setting, clothing, and temperature. And then write this story much more concisely in your own words.

Listen for unexpected turns
A Des Moines Register reporter heard the police chief say he missed a meeting because he was too tired planning the Pope’s visit to town. The reporter did not blurt out: “The Pope’s coming!” Instead, he said, “Oh yeah. Is that next week?” Act like you know new information.

Listen for nuances
Writes Nobel Prize winning author (and former journalist) Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “Today, one has the impression that the interviewer is not listening to what you say, nor does he think it important because he believes that the tape recorder hears everything. But he’s wrong; it doesn’t hear the beating of the heart, which is the most important part of the interview.”

You can ask yes/no questions …
… if you are verifying information. You can also add a follow-up question.

Stay within the subject being addressed …
… unless the source digresses to a more provocative or amusing angle.

Look at body language.
Get sources to unfold arms and be more open. People whose arms are crossed are often uptight or uncomfortable. Before you start asking the more pertinent questions, gab with them for a little while and see if they start uncrossing their arms and opening up. While interviewing, lean in to show you care.

Be confident in the silences
People unaccustomed to speaking to the press may need time to formulate answers. Let them do so. Once in a while, a person might use silence as a weapon by quietly glaring at you after a question is posed. Prod these confrontational sources by saying, “Would you like for me to repeat the question?” Or, you can also say: “Sorry, maybe I did not phrase the question right. Let me try again.”

Don’t try to control the interview
Think of the dialogue as conversation. And be honest with those you interview if you expect them to be honest with you. If they trust you, they may give you information ahead of time, knowing that you will not reveal it too early. But you will be able to do the research before the story breaks.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep
Don’t tell them what the specific angle will be, when the story will be running, or that they can review the story before it is published.

Make a list of unusual questions you can use for profiles and features
• What’s the most bizarre thing you’ve ever seen?
• When did you realize there was no Santa Claus?
• When did you realize life was unfair?
• What’s a perfect day?
• What’s a typical day?

Keep listening as you pause near the front door
Keep the tape recorder rolling. The person interviewed sometimes offer significant stories or details as you or they are leaving. That’s where confessional information is occasionally offered. At this point, sources are more relaxed, thinking the interview is over.

A good journalist can interview and write a decent story on anyone if he does enough work and pays careful attention during interviews. Everybody is worth a story. The woman at Wal-Mart made me think of a line from a favorite poem by Yevtushenko entitled People: “When people die, worlds die with them…the first love, first kiss.” For this reason, people hope to live on by telling their stories, even if that means thousands of people will read about embarrassing or poignant moments. Let’s make sure we treat these stories, and our sources, with the respect and empathy they deserve.



3 Responses to “Getting the most out of an interview”

  1. What do sports editors want? A mix of old and new skills, they say « ON SPORTS Says:

    […] stories and features. Doing a story on the top scorer on the women’s basketball team? Then, interview opposing coaches and players over the course of several games. You will learn much about this […]

  2. O’Collegian, Daily Trojan offer solid follow-up stories « ON SPORTS Says:

    […] from Washington State’s coaches and players, something that could have been culled from the game interviews or from follow-up phone calls but I know it can be difficult tracking down sources on Labor […]

  3. Amy Says:

    Do you have any advice for us young struggling journalists on how to get a hold of a sports figure for an interview? For instance I work for a local magazine in Orange County, CA and want to interview one of the Lakers. We decided to go for Trevor Ariza or Jordan Farmar since they are local boys who went to UCLA. What’s the protocal? Are there any do’s and don’ts? I know the name of one guy in the PR department to I just call and ask? Is it better to request a certain player or to leave it more open? Any help would be SO appreciated!

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