The Art of the Interview


By Stephanie Heinatz, Consociate Media Partner

We were sitting inside his tiny office. Files were spread across his desk – albeit closed. And we were chatting.

He was a long-time detective working a whole host of cold case homicides and I was a young pup of a reporter working the crime beat.

I had questions. So many questions.

About him. About the men and women whose murders had yet to be solved. About the feelings of a case going cold, the process of keeping in touch, no matter how heart wrenching, with the victims’ families, and about the frustration of wanting so badly to hold criminals accountable for their actions.

But what we were talking about in that moment was personal. What he did for fun. Why he was inspired to go into law enforcement. The challenges he faced day in and day out.

After the first 20 minutes of sitting in that small office interviewing this exceptional detective, I had yet to ask him any specifics about the cases I was interested in.

That’s when he stopped me and asked ME a question. A question I have never forgotten.

“Have you had any formal interrogation training?”

“Ummm…no. Why do you ask?”

“Because what you are doing in this interview is classic interrogation techniques.”

To me, I was having a conversation. Getting the person I was interviewing comfortable talking to me. Finding common ground. Providing the environment that was comfortable for them to open up.

Turns out, according to the detective (who was not being critical, by the way), this was classic interrogation.

I call it basic interview techniques.

Stepping back and looking back on that time as a journalist, I could see why these techniques were helpful in reporting stories.

Today, I can also confidently say that those same techniques – while softer in approach, perhaps – are equally important to interviewing (whether for blog posts, press releases or on video) and helping uncover the powerful stories that we (and all of you) want to tell about businesses, causes, organizations and people making a true difference in their communities.

Here’s the process I employ when gearing up to chat with folks. Call it an interrogation or an interview. Either way, it’s my proven model to helping tell powerful stories.

HOMEWORK

You wouldn’t walk into a job interview without checking out the company’s web site, so don’t walk into an interview without doing some research on who you’re talking to.

Look at their social media profiles. Do they post a lot about their families, their hobbies, their political beliefs?

Check out Google. Just type their name in Google. Look at the web, news and image results. Have they been in the news lately? Are other people chatting about them?

Think about the topic you will be interviewing them about, too, and research that as well. Has there been recent news coverage about the topic? Who else is talking about the subject? Why? What impact could it have?

Write these thoughts down.

CRAFT SOME DRAFT QUESTIONS

People are busy. Busy. Busy. If someone is going to take some time away from their day to give you their thoughts on a topic, or tell you their story, be respectful of their time. Come prepared with questions you absolutely know you want to get answers to.

Literally write them down.

One trick is to use the NOTES app on your phone and bring that with you, too, if you aren’t a paper and pen kind of gal.

The benefit to this is two-fold.

One, you go through the process of thinking through what you need to get more information on.

Two, you have a go-to list of questions should the interviewee be nervous and they want to think through their answers ahead of time and request to know what you will ask them (this happens a lot more often than you may think).

ASK THE HARDEST QUESTION FIRST

“We’re going to start out with the hardest question first. What is your name and can you spell it for me?”

That is nearly 100% of the time my very first question.

People – including myself – are often nervous to be interviewed. Will they say the right thing? Will the words come out right? How will the words be interpreted?

Break the ice, where you can, by asking the very hardest question first (insert sarcasm here) – name and spelling.

The other benefit to this approach is you build in a confirmation of how to spell someone’s name. No matter how accurate anything you write or produce is, if someone’s name isn’t spelled right, it can leave the remainder of the story feeling like it’s incomplete or, worse, question the accuracy of what is told.

My first newspaper editor told me firmly that even the name John Doe can be spelled many different ways, so never assume.

MAKE IT A CONVERSATION

Interviews shouldn’t always be one sided. Allow yourself the freedom to share tid-bits of your own experiences and life when conducting an interview. It helps make the subject you’re interviewing feel more at ease and like you understand.

Never exaggerate your experiences to relate to your subject, but where applicable, do work to relate to them in some way.

You’re likely to find that by sharing your own experiences and making an interview more of a conversation than a one-way street that your subject will open up and feel more at ease. This will come across well in their answers to your questions as well as on video, if the interview is being recorded.

BE FLEXIBLE

Yes, you will be prepared going into an interview. Yes, you will have a list of questions that you will bring with you.

But the very best stories are often the ones we don’t realize we are looking for.

Listen to what people are saying in an interview. Pick up on details and don’t be afraid to be flexible and steer away from a list of questions to get people to dive deeper into a topic.

Want to really test your ability to be flexible in an interview? Interview a child. If you’ve never done it, you should know they tend to answer questions with one word. They are very literal – or very shy. You have to pull stories out of them (usually). You have to read the room and environment around you. You have to be flexible.

GO BACK IN TIME

What inspired you to go into the field you’re in?

It may be a simple question, but the answer can be powerful no matter who you are interviewing or why.

Talking to a doctor about advances in gynecologic cancers? His answer on what motivated him to go into that line of work could speak to the foundation of how he cares for patients.

Talking to a business owner and her answer might reveal a challenge from her life and how she aimed for her business to solve problems for others.

Talking to a government official and their answer might showcase what public policy efforts they are most likely to get involved in, which could lead to even more questions and potential views about future needs in a community.

ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT TO ADD?

I always save the true hardest question for last.

“Is there anything else you want to add?”

Nine times out of 10, there is. And by the end of an interview, if you’ve done it well and made your subject feel comfortable, they will open up with a story, a nugget, an anecdote that you could have never planned on or expected and it will turn into the leading narrative of the video or written piece you publish.

Read this far? Here’s a challenge for you! Think about someone close to you in your life. Spouse, partner, parent, friend. Ask them if they will be part of a little project with you to help you hone your interview skills. Follow the steps above and conduct your own test interview using these tips. See if you learn anything new about someone you already know.