How to get the best out of an interview

Always be polite, know what you want, do your research, listen to the person you are interviewing and remain alert for unexpected news angles - just a few tips for getting a strong interview.

Image of Jaffna journalism training at the MRTC by Media Helping Media, released under Creative Commons

Interviewing as a fact-finding tool

Interviewing is one of a journalist's main skills. It is through interviewing that you find facts, hear diverse perspectives and learn more about the issues you are covering. It's more than a yes/no process. It's about uncovering and extracting important news-worthy information that has been missed by others.

1: Always be polite

When you request an interview, you are asking someone to give their time so that you can gather information for a news story. You must remain polite and thank the interviewee at the end. Members of the public are not obliged to give an interview, and you have no right to intrude on their privacy.

However, public figures are expected to be accountable; your interview is a way for their actions to be scrutinised, although even they don't have to agree to be interviewed if they don't want to. So you need to understand that obtaining an interview is never guaranteed and, when someone agrees to be interviewed, you need to be civil and treat them with respect.

Remain polite throughout the interview

2: Don't show your emotions

Whatever you feel about what the interviewee says, try to avoid agreeing or disagreeing or showing signs of approval or disapproval.

If you are a TV reporter, avoid nodding or shaking your head, smiling or frowning when an answer is given. You might have been trained to do so-called noddies so that they can be used in editing the piece later, but they should be avoided. If the audience sees you nodding to an answer being given by the interviewee they might feel you agree with the point being made, which could damage your impartiality.

Your job is to report on the topic you are covering objectively and not get involved emotionally. It's natural to be affected by news, but a professional journalist will be true to their job of uncovering and producing facts.

You must remain objective at all times

3: Be clear on what you want

Tell the interviewee what you want to talk about and why. Be honest about the context at the outset. You should not - other than in exceptional cases where you feel that information cannot be obtained any other way – interview under false pretences. If you feel that this is needed to get to the truth of the matter, you must first obtain permission from your senior editor.

Never conduct an interview under false pretences

4: Don't provide a script

Although it’s important to give an interviewee fair warning of the areas you want to cover, you must never set out the questions as a list and hand them over to them to read before the interview. You will get asked to do this from time to time. Don't, to do so could turn the interview into a free public relations (PR) exercise.

However, you should explain the scope of the interview and the general areas of questioning you want to cover. This will give the interviewee enough time to prepare, which, in turn, might lead to a more informative interview.

Don't let your interview turn into a PR exercise

5: Respond to news angles

Make it clear that, although the interview is for a particular purpose, you may ask supplementary questions if anything unexpected arises. If during an interview a new piece of information is revealed that is of interest, you need to be able to follow it up. That’s why it’s important to give the interviewee only an outline of what you want to discuss rather than limit yourself to set questions.

Listen out for the unexpected and act on it

6: Do your research

Make sure you know your facts and the history of the story before you carry out the interview. You owe it to the person you have arranged to talk to, and to your audience, to be as informed as you possibly can.

You must not waste the time of the interviewee or your audience. There is nothing more embarrassing than making a silly mistake or being corrected by the interviewee. You should also spend enough time researching the background of the interviewee, as well as the topic being covered. It may help you to understand why they say what they do.

You must know what you are talking about

7: Don't be judgemental

Even if you think the interviewee is in the wrong, you have to treat the person with respect. You must not be swayed by your own personal feelings. You should always remain objective, fair and impartial, whatever the topic and no matter how you feel about what is being said.

Your emotions don't matter, you are paid to report. You need to use your interviewing skills to get to the truth of the matter and present that information in a way that leaves the audience free to decide what is important.

Your opinion doesn't count, what is said counts

8: Don't try to appear clever

An interview is about uncovering facts that, had it not been for your interview, may never have surfaced. It is not about making you look and sound great. If you try to be smart, members of the audience may sense this and you may lose their respect. It could also lead to tension in your interview that could distract.

If you try to look smart you could alienate the audience and the interviewee

9: Pay attention

Never be so engrossed in thinking about your next question that you fail to hear the previous answer. It is extremely annoying if a journalist asks a question that has just been answered. Equally, it is embarrassing for a journalist to fail to pick up on a line given in the previous answer. Your audience will know you are not listening, and, if it is an important point you missed, they will feel let down by you.

Listen to the interviewee at all times

10: Don't fidgit and fiddle

Try to avoid anything that could distract from what is being said. Move papers, pens, etc out of reach of both the interviewee and you. Also, try to avoid sitting on chairs with wheels or chairs that rock - this can also be distracting. Avoid obstacles between you and the interviewee, such as a large desk; it creates barriers. Ask the interviewee to sit in a comfortable, relaxed position so that they can concentrate on your questions and on giving their answers.

Avoid anything that could distract from what is being said

11: Check for outside noises

Check for external sounds that could disrupt the flow. The exception is where the noise is part of the story. The last thing you want is return to the studio with a great interview in terms of the content but which is unfit for broadcast.

Avoid anything that could distract from what is being said

12: Summing up

Try to sum up the main points of the interview at the end. It’s a way to confirm any news angles that were raised during the interview. The final word should always be thanks.

Image by Media Helping Media and released under Creative Commons.

David BrewerThe author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who set up and runs Media Helping Media. He delivers journalism training and media consultancy services worldwide via Media Ideas. He also runs a media mentoring service.



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