December 19, 2005

Interviewing 101 For Journalism Enthusiasts

A recent conversation reminded me of this topic which I've been meaning to post about for nearly a year now. Blogging is supposed to be fairly easy, and the proliferation of blogger interviews with political and media personalities could suggest that doing an interview is just as simple. Plus, interviews sound all mainstream journalisty, yay, so let's rack 'em up, shall we?

However, having heard some of my fellow bloggers and certain super-annoying mainstream journalists make interview mistakes that are truly painful to suffer through, here are some suggestions. Which you can take or leave, of course, because I'm just a total frakking amateur mouthing off about pet peeves and bitter experience.

Suggestion the first: Shut the hell up.

If you are or fancy yourself to be a media personality, you have an outlet of your own on which to opine at length. If you want to do all the talking, don't bother interviewing anyone else. Spare yourself, spare us, spare your hapless victim. If this person wanted to listen to your lengthy rants, they would listen to your show/read your writing. Be aware that for a politician, there's a big difference between an interview with the media and a constituent forum. If your 'question' runs longer than three sentences, it had better be necessary down to the letter and a piece of indisputably genius oratory. Otherwise, keep it simple and short.

Suggestion the second: Do enough research to come up with interesting topics. Write them down someplace where you can refer to them, perhaps even in the form of a one or two word reminder of the subject.

This is most useful for a general interview, such as with a candidate running for office or with a topic you have easy familiarity with. In theory, the budding politician should be able to take a simple question like, 'what would you do about healthcare in your district' and turn it into something interesting. A topic expert worthy of the name should be able to launch into full lecture mode with the most basic question. From there, a follow up may suggest itself or you can go back to your list for the next topic. Unless you're doing a television or radio interview, and to some extent even then, it's more important that your question be concise than witty or perfectly phrased. Your main job is to get them talking and listen carefully (see the first suggestion.)

Suggestion the third: Go with the flow. But not too much.

Don't get tied to your list of topics or some particular order for them. You may want to drill down for more info on some subject that your interviewee is a particular expert in, play off of something they said that sounds interesting, or chain your topics of interest together in an order suggested by the answers. Still, though you're best off aiming for a relaxed, conversational flow, don't let things ramble to the point where the clock runs out on a question or subject you really wanted to explore. It's exceptionally unlikely that the goal of your interview is to swap pointless tales about pet ownership or sports, to make a date or lifelong friend, or exchange barbecue invitations, so skip it for the duration of the actual interview (and in the majority of cases therefore, for perpetuity.)

Suggestion the fourth: They have assistants for a reason.

If you're approaching someone with a retinue, talk to one of the staffers first and ask if it's a good time for a few questions instead of trying to brush past them to the target. The larger the retinue, the more crucial this is. If you're setting up an interview by phone, don't expect to be put right through, just make an appointment like everybody else. Otherwise, you'll get treated like a fan or a crank.

Suggestion the fifth: Beware the hypothetical.

Politicians in particular are very likely to respond to a random anecdote or hypothetical case by telling you that they'd need more information before giving you an answer. You've now wasted a perfectly good question and however much time they took to tell you they can't respond. Sometimes you'll get this answer as a dodge, but work on developing the discretion necessary to avoid instigating this blather sinkhole.

Suggestion the sixth: Watch the time.

Particularly in the presence of assistants or given a very demanding schedule, your subject is going to shuffle off to do something else at the appointed end of your time together. Pace appropriately and don't assume an extension, no matter how much the interview may come to resemble a friendly chat.

Suggestion the seventh: Chill out, they won't bite.

And if they did, what a story that would be, eh?

Posted by natasha at December 19, 2005 10:34 AM | Blogging | Technorati links |