There's quite a bit online about interviewing. I've pasted in some links
and excerpts further below. Consultant Dick Brooks' sessions on interviewing
at the NFCB are always quite good. I'll have to dig up my notes from one of
those and share them sometime.
I'll lead with my most feared pet peeve. Try to avoid the "either, or" question.
As in: "Where do the ideas for your songs come from... is it everyday life?
are they conversations you hear? are they books you read? or is it more like
a feeling you get that you try to put words to?" Seriously, you hear them
like this all too often. I hear them coming out of my own mouth all too often...unless
I'm on my toes and just stop at the original question, and not be afraid of
the silence that might come up while the interviewee chews on it for a second.
Those "either/or" add-ons often come as a result of fear of the pause. If
you want to follow up to ask about (as in this example) a specific type of
inspiration, then add on another short question. "Are you inspired by books
Here are some web resources that I like and some excerpts - the full articles
are all worth reading: Jay Allison at Transom.org.
There's a lot in there about the mechanics of on-the-street or news reporting
interviewing and technical tips but I like these technique notes as well.
Remember eye contact. Don't let the mic be the focus -- occupying
the space between you and the person you're talking to so you have to stare
through it. I usually begin by holding the mic casually, as though it's unimportant.
Sometimes I'll rest it against my cheek to show it has no evil powers. I might
start off with an innocuous question ("Geez, is this as bad as the smog ever
gets out here?"), then slowly move the mic, from below, into position at the
side of the person's mouth, but not blocking eye contact. You'll find your
own way of being natural with the mic, but it is important.
Don't be afraid to ask the same thing in different ways until you get
an answer you're satisfied with. Remember you can edit the beginning and
ending of two answers together, but be sure to get the ingredients. If a noise
interferes with a good bit of tape, try to get it again. You can blame it
on the machine, but it might be better just to wrap the conversation back
to the same place so you don't get the quality of someone repeating himself.
For repeat answers or more enthusiasm, try: "What?!" or "You're kidding!"
or "Really??" Remember the question: "Why?", especially following a yes
or no response. Don't forget the preface: "Tell me about..." Let people talk.
Allow silence. Don't always jump in with questions. Often, some truth will
follow a silence. Let people know they can repeat things-- that you're not
on the air-- it's ok to screw up. And remember to offer something of yourself.
Don't just take. Think of the listener's innocence; ask the obvious, along
with the subtle.
From The Poynter Institute, an article on The
Power of Listening by Chip Scanlan
During my reporting career, using a tape recorder taught me my most important
lesson of interviewing: to shut up. It was a painful learning experience,
having to listen to myself stepping on people's words, cutting them off just
as they were getting enthusiastic or appeared about to make a revealing statement.
There were far too many times I heard myself asking overly long and leading
questions, instead of simply saying, "Why?" or "How did it happen?" or
"When did all this begin?" or "What do you mean?" and then closing my mouth
and letting people answer.
"Learning to listen has been the great lesson of my life," David Ritz
wrote in The Writer. "You can't capture a subject or render someone lifelike,
you can't create a living voice, with all its unique twists and turns, without
listening. Now there are those who listen while waiting breathlessly to break
in. For years, that was me. But I'm talking about patient listening, deep-down
listening, listening with the heart as well as the head, listening in a way
that lets the person know you care, that you want to hear what she has to
say, that you're enjoying the sound of her voice."
From Radio Diaries,
tips for teens that work for everyone:
* Don't be afraid of pauses and silences. Resist the temptation to
jump in. Let the person think. Often the best comments come after a short,
uncomfortable silence when the person you are interviewing feels the need
to fill the void and add something better.
* Let people talk in full sentences. Avoid questions that can be answered
with a simple yes or no. Instead of, "Are you a doctor?" ask, "Tell me how
you became a doctor." Remember that you want people to tell you stories.
* Get people to 'do' things. In addition to the sit-down interview,
have people show you around; record a tour of their house, their photo album
or their car engine. It's more fun to get people moving around and talking
about what they're doing, rather than just sitting in a chair. It helps to
relax people before and during an interview. It's also a way to get good tape.
* Listening is the key. A good interview is like a conversation. Prepare
questions, but don't just follow a list. The most important thing is to listen
and have your questions come naturally. If your questions are rehearsed and
hollow, the answers will be too. If you are curious and your questions are
spontaneous and honest, you will get a good interview.
* Interviewing is a two-way street. Conducting a good interview depends,
in part, on asking the right questions. But it is also important to establish
a relationship with the person you are interviewing. Sometimes it is appropriate
to share some information about yourself in an interview. Remember that it's
a conversation. What's more, for it to be an honest conversation, people must
feel that you care about what they say, and will honor and respect their words
And finally, I'll end with this anecdote that someone posted to the AIR List
last year. Sorry, I can't recall who - but there are some good tips within:
I'm reading a memoir about Barbara Frum, who was the first female current
affairs host of the CBC's famous radio program "As It Happens" (a show that
is still on the air today and is syndicated abroad -- it's been described
as the first radio current affairs show based mainly on the hosts interviewing
people over the phone). The book is by her daughter, Linda Frum.
Linda writes that when she herself became a journalist, her mother offered
to share her secrets of interviewing. Prepared to write notebooks-full of
notes, the daughter was shocked to hear only this:
"Use as few words as possible to ask your questions and then get out of
A co-worker expanded the description of Barbara's trick: "'She may have
been the first person who discovered that the most powerful thing you can
do in an interview is do nothing at all but just sit there. ... And on the
phone that's devastatingly effective. She would ask a question, the person
would give a terrible answer and she would very often just sit there and wait
them out. People with a phone in their hands -- and nobody's making any noise
-- are driven to talk. ... When we packaged the program, we'd just edit all
those long silences out of there. And it looked like she just asked the question
and people came up with all these wonderful answers. You didn't know she had
brow-beaten them by not speaking. She also tended to do this live, which was
harder on the audience. The nicest thing about being able to edit is that
all that horror, which is about 60 percent of interviews, disappears. It was
her best trick."
In talking to her daughter, Barbara Frum expanded: "'Never become too
entranced with your own voice. Don't forget that the whole point is to hear
as little of you and as much of the other guy as possible. Do that and you'll
do a good job.'"