Tips for interviewing

From Ken Metzler, Professor Emeritus, University of Oregon School of Communication, author of Creative Interviewing.

Three most important characteristics of the interviewer


(1) Sincerity (altruistic purpose clearly stated)

(2) Curiosity, open mind

(3) Listening ability

Ten Stages of Interviewing


(1) Definition of purpose (Know what you want and you're halfway there)

(2) Choice of respondent (Knowing who has the answers).

(3) Pre-interview research

(4) Planning your interview

(5) Making an interview appointment

(6) Meeting-greeting your respondent/preliminary (icebreaker) conversation

(7) Getting down to business - your first planned questions

(8) Reaching a friendly conversational rapport, like old friends talking

(9) The "bomb." Potentially embarrassing questions - to be handled carefully

(10) Ending the interview - watch for the "afterglow effect"

A definition

Journalistic Interview: Gathering information on behalf of an audience by asking questions.

Pre-interview checklist

1. Have I made the purpose of my interview clear-both to myself and to my source? (What do you really want from this interview and how eager are you to obtain this information? The more specific your purpose and the more apparent your enthusiasm, the more likely you are to gain cooperation.)


2. Have I made it clear (to myself and to the source) why I want information from this particular individual? (The source may be flattered to be singled out.)


3. Have I eliminated my own pre-conceived biases and removed my emotional barriers to communications?


4. Have I done preliminary research on the person and topic to be discussed--read things about him/her, done preliminary interviews so that I can develop new areas of inquiry?


5. Has my research included preparation for "small talk" or "icebreaker" kinds of commentary? (e.g., reviewing news accounts of recent Supreme Court decisions when preparing to interview a lawyer.)


6. Before requesting the interview, have I prepared a few "sample" questions cold-bloodedly calculated to be both provocative and ego-reinforcing?


7. Am I prepared to use my listening "down time" effectively? (Your mind runs 3 to 4 times faster than people's speech so that you can tune in and out of the conversation. You can make effective use of the "non-listening" time to evaluate what is said, make comparisons with other data, take notes, and to think up new questions.)


8. Am I (or will I be by interview time?) well rested, well nourished, sober, with all mental faculties alert so that I can catch the fine nuances of meaning or things left half-expressed or even unsaid-in short, ready to listen between the lines?

Advanced Interviewing


1. The best interviewers are those who enjoy people and are eager to learn more about the people they meet--and who are eternally curious about darned near everything.


2. Your reputation precedes you. Any veteran subject will likely inquire about you and your methods. Journalists known to be Fair, Accurate, Complete, and Temperate (FACT acronym) usually enjoy better cooperation than those who are unfair, inaccurate, etc.


3.Your own demeanor is important. Avoid arrogance. Smile a lot, laugh uproariously at silly attempts at humor, and try to put joy and spirit into the conversation.


4. It's important that you communicate your interview purpose precisely, even dramatically. Show that you believe in the purpose of your interview and are enthusiastic about it. Sometimes the explanation itself will send the respondent on the right track with little or no further questioning.


5. A pattern for questioning-chronological, for example-is useful. Another pattern goes by the acronym GOSS: GOALS (what do you want to achieve?), OBSTACLES (what stands in the way of achievement?), SOLUTIONS (how did you or will you remove the obstacles?), and START (how did it all begin?). A pattern for observation: SCAM: Setting, Character, Action, Meaning.


6. Small talk can helps, not only at the icebreakng stage but throughout the interview. Be careful. Don't trivialize and don't dominate the conversation. It's what the source says that's important.


7. Probes-followup questions-are essential. It's seldom the fast question that gets to the heart of the matter it's the seventh, or maybe 16th-questions you didn't know you were going to ask but have chosen to ask because of your careful, thoughtful listening.


8. Writers: Probe for anecdotes--that is, for illustrative stories that will make moments come alive in your writing. Work to obtain specific information-the more detailed the better.


9. Rejoice audibly and often when source rewards you with (A) anecdotes, (B) examples, (4) quotable quotes and metaphorical expressions ('I'm like a master mechanic tinkering under the hood of government," says H. Ross Perot.)


10. If it's metaphorical quotes you want, try employing metaphorical questions. ("Governor, do you hope to hit a home run with this legislative proposal?")


11. Listening includes non-verbal demonstration--listening with the eyes, with smiles and nods, and by avoiding signs that you're not listening (such as slumped body posture).


12. Writers: If something happens in an interview that causes you both to laugh, consider recreating it as a scene for your story--make your readers laugh, too.


13. Listen for a crossroads (significant decisions made in any situation) and epiphanies (what nugget of learning has come from the experience?).


14. Avoid asking people how they "feel" about _____. It's the most trite, overused question in American journalism and sources begin to hate it after time. A good substitute: "What were you thinking when ____?"


15. Avoid using the term "interview." Call it a "conversafion" or "discussion" or "chat."


16. Don't be afraid to drop names. If you've talked to people your source holds in high regard, don't hesitate to suggest that "Colin Powell says you have some good ideas on international relations," or "Your mother sends her regards--says I should ask about the time you hit George Bush on the head with a golf hall."

Final thoughts

1. Journalism is fun, and the most fun is talking to people.


2. Your age (if young) is not a liability--most people enjoy the role of "teacher."


3. Your "shyness" (if any)-same deal, particularly if you show careful listening.


4. Even when you're saying little or nothing, you're conveying information (through body language, paralanguage (voice inflections).


5. It's not the questions you ask that make for a successful interview but the attention you pay to the answers you receive.


6. If you expect people to reveal themselves, try revealing a little of yourself and (especially) your purpose in asking a particular line of questions.


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