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The Dos and Don'ts of Interviewing

Doing good interviews is key to crafting good stories. You can't just wing it and hope to get compelling quotes. You have to know what your source is likely to say on a topic, and you also have to know what those with opposing views have to say. Knowing both will enable you to ask probing questions that advance the story. If you need to push back, you'll be doing it from a position of strength and knowledge.

Here are some basic Dos and don'ts to help you do great interviews.

DO: ASK SIMPLE, DIRECT QUESTIONS

These are questions that start with What, How and Why. This requires a source to describe ("What happened? How did it happen? Why did you do it?").

Example

DON'T: ASK CLOSED-ENDED QUESTIONS

Yes/No questions ("did you…", "will you…") elicit yes/no answers.

Example

DO: REMEMBER THAT "LESS IS MORE"

Short questions produce succinct answers. Long, rambling questions get long rambling answers. This is especially important when you plan on airing the interview as a Q∓A rather than chopping it up for soundbites in a longer story. The listener wants to hear the source - not you!

DON'T: ASK LONG, RAMBLING QUESTIONS

You'll confuse your source - or give them an "out" to not answer.

DON'T: ASK MORE THAN ONE QUESTION AT A TIME

Questions like "What program do you like most and what's the advantage it has over other programs?" allow sources to answer the easiest question or the one that makes them look the best. Or they'll get confused and not answer either question well.

Example

DO: KEEP YOUR OPINIONS TO YOURSELF

Your opinions are not important in a story. If you appear to have an agenda in reporting a story, you will lose your credibility with listeners.

DON'T: ASK SELF- ANSWERING QUESTIONS

"What was going through your head when you were held hostage because it must have been very scary?"

DO: ASK FOR DETAILS, EXAMPLES, ANECDOTES

Specific examples and personal stories make more compelling narratives.

DON'T: USE JARGON

And if you can't understand the jargon or the point being made, say something like "For those of us who aren't microbiologists, how would you explain the basics of that concept to a kid?"

DO: PROBE TOUGH ISSUES BY USING OPEN ENDED QUESTIONS

Asking a source "Are you racist?" will almost certainly prompt a "no" answer. Instead, ask focused, open-ended questions based on evidence that indicates the source is racist.

DO: STRATEGIZE HOW TO GET AT DIFFICULT/SENSITIVE ISSUES

Statistics reported that one third of the school children in a district were going without breakfast. Asking the children directly: "Did you eat breakfast this morning?" would likely produce less than truthful responses, since children don't want to admit they're poor and hungry. Instead, ask the child: "What's the first thing you did when you got up this morning? Then what? Then what?" until the child arrives at school. If the child makes no mention of breakfast, you can then ask: "What about breakfast? Why didn't you eat anything?"

DO: PUT THE BURDEN OF PROOF ON THE SOURCE

If a source insists "The program is a huge success" ask him to define success. Are the metrics he's using appropriate?

DON'T: SETTLE FOR THE NON- ANSWER OR UNJUSTIFIED ACCUSATION

If you're uncomfortable probing an issue or challenging an assertion, use the third person question: "What would you say to critics who say this practice is unethical?"

Example

DO: BE AWARE OF EMOTIONAL SHIFTS AND BODY LANGUAGE

Good answers often come from statements like, "You're really worked up about this!" or "I can tell this is important to you."

DON'T: BE AFRAID OF SILENCE

Often it means your source is simply thinking about his answer. Even if he's not thinking, he'll feel compelled to fill the silence with something.

Example

DO: LISTEN - CAREFULLY - QUIETLY!

Don't make listening noises like "ok… uh-huh… yep". They'll just ruin your audio!