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
DON'T: ASK CLOSED-ENDED QUESTIONS
Yes/No questions ("did you…", "will you…") elicit
DO: REMEMBER THAT "LESS IS
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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?"
DO: BE AWARE
OF EMOTIONAL SHIFTS AND BODY
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.
DO: LISTEN - CAREFULLY - QUIETLY!
Don't make listening noises like "ok… uh-huh… yep". They'll
just ruin your audio!