Interview Techniques

The best interview is like the best first date – that’s what you’re aiming for, and most of the rules of dating apply to interviewing. Only without the flirting.        

Here are some lessons I learnt from Decca Aitkenhead, at a Guardian Journalism Masterclass, which might resonate when conducting interviews formally (or informally) during Circuit. Interestingly, I use the same analogy, although different guidance, when describing partnership development. What tips would you add or dispute?

Preparation

  • Research, research, research. You can never do too much. Keep an eye out for random trivial details about the subject.
  • Never have a question they’ve heard a million times before. Try to be original and engaging.
  • Have a question early on that demonstrates you’ve done your homework and makes them pay attention.
  • Only ever ask a question if you are interested in the answer.
  • When you’ve come up with all your questions, organize them into subject headings and then structure the subjects in a natural flowing conversational order, starting with the reason for the interview. Leave the trickier ones until later. Finish with a funny or quirky one.
  • Only ever write on one side of paper.

Presentation

  • Just as with dating, it never goes well if you turn up late.
  • Dress in a similar style to your interview, only a little less well.
  • Establish warm, friendly complicity – don’t be deferential.
  • Keep paraphernalia to a minimum. Slide the Dictaphone onto the table during small talk, keep your questions on your lap.
  • Mirror the interviewee’s body language.
  • Always ignore the PR.
  • Never ever read questions. You need to sound natural and spontaneous.
  • Always follow the flow of the conversation so listen carefully.  If an answer leads naturally to a question you’d planned later, as it now. Never allow your next question to sound like a non sequitor – it’s the kiss of death.

Tricky Stuff

  • Only ever offer a compliment if you mean it – insincerity shows.
  • Wait until the second half of the interview before broaching difficult subjects.
  • Instead of attacking or criticising, couch difficult questions in third part terms.
  • Offer critical feedback from the reader’s perspective.
  • When they tell you in advance that they absolutely don’t want to talk about ix or y, nine times out of 10 they do. Wait to see if they bring it up – and if they don’t, offer them a reason to, which will give them an excuse to talk about it.
  • When they go quite, and you want them to keep talking, don’t say anything. Never feel like you need to rescue them and fill the silence.  Keep quiet, while nodding and maintaining eye contact, and they will probably say more.
  • If you’re three quarters of the way through and none of your questions have generated anything interesting, abandon them altogether and try something random.

Things To Look Out For

  • Don’t feel you’ve got to be nice about them just because they flattered you.
  • Don’t feel as if you’ve got to take care of them or protect then just because they claim to be anxious about what you will write about them.
  • If you think they’re lying, they probably are. So keep pressing and ask the question again.

Afterwards

  • As soon as it’s over, phone a friend and tell them about the interview. Whatever you tell them immediately is almost certainly the most interesting thing, and gives you your angle.
  • Never cut corners when transcribing – type up everything word for word, including pauses.
  • Every single interview is written differently, so don’t try and formulate a template.
  • See if you can get another few minutes on the phone if you can see holes where additional material would be helpful.
  • Do not feel inhibited in what you right; do not picture the interview reading the article. Don’t feel guilty or embarrassed about writing something they won’t like, as long as you feel it’s fair and true.
  • But do read your copy through the eyes of a neutral reader – or of a fan of the interviewee – and consider whether you come across as fair and trustworthy and likeable

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