Student after student at the Australian Writers’ Centre tell me they struggle with interviews, so I thought I’d share a few tips on how to get good material, and how to put your interview subject at ease.
I interview up to a dozen people every week, and although the topics vary, the process is basically the same. Here’s how to make the interview process easier for everyone, using some examples from a recent story of mine that featured in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Tip #1: Start by setting the scene.
Explain to your interview subject what the story is about, who it’s for, and where their expertise fits in. For example.
“Hi Samantha, Thanks for making time to chat today about how to change the way you think about work. Just to recap, the story is about how our thoughts impact our workday, and I’m interested in your perspective as a former lawyer, and now your role coaching women through change.”
Tip #2: Put your subject at ease.
Unless your interviewee is a media whiz, it’s quite likely they’ll be feeling slightly nervous about being interviewed. You’ll get better material out of them if you can help them relax a little. Short of sending a V&T down the phone line, I rely on the following tried and trusted journalistic trick: asking a couple of ‘light’ questions to start. Asking: “So, how did you get into coaching?” when the story is about how to change your thoughts at work, can help relax an interviewee. In this case, my interviewee was actually a natural. If they’re already relaxed, no problem, ask a nice ‘soft’ question to start regardless, you might just end up with a bit of background you can weave into the narrative of your story.
Tip #3: Ask the right questions.
When asking questions, all journalists rely on the 5Ws + H. That’s the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How? All questions should include a who, what, when, where, why or how.
“How did you feel about your former career?” “Why did you get into coaching?”
Questions should also be open ended (ie: draw out something other than a yes/no response), so don’t simply make a statement like:
“Do you think it’s important to enjoy your job?” which might elicit a reply like “Yes.” Or “Absolutely.”
This is interesting information to know, but hardly an earth shattering quote that will shed some real insight on an issue for your readers.
Instead, ask “How do most of your clients feel about their current job?” which might get response like:
“Almost everyone I see isn’t happy with their job,” says Nolan-Smith, who after trying various roles in the corporate world now coaches women through change via her business, Dakini Grace.
Tip #4: Ask follow up questions.
Although all of the above is important, here is what I consider to be THE MOST IMPORTANT tip when interviewing. Ask follow up questions. For example:
Q: “When should you leave a job that’s making you unhappy?”
A: “My advice is always not to jump out of the frying pan immediately.”
Nice quote, but we can make it even better by asking another follow up question.
Q: “Why not?”
A: “If you haven’t worked out what’s making you unhappy, you’ll end up taking that unhappiness with you to your next job.
The whole exchange can then turn into this:
Though it’s tempting to ditch a job once you realise it’s making you unhappy, Nolan-Smith says staying put at least temporarily can be more productive in the long term. “My advice is always not to jump out of the frying pan immediately,” she says. “If you haven’t worked out what’s making you unhappy, you’ll end up taking that unhappiness with you to your next job.
- What is your biggest challenge when interviewing someone?
- Do you have another interviewing tip that has worked for you?
- Any interviewing successes (or horror stories) to share?