When it comes to getting someone to share their story, there is a whole lot of preparation and perseverance that you need on your end as an interviewer. To get someone, on record, to say something that hasn’t been known previously or offers an insight about them or their work that would make your story unique, is a matter of you asking the right questions, sending out the right kind of vibe and above all, making sure the interview is as interesting for someone to give, as it is for you to take.
So here are a few tips to keeps in mind:
The value of this can’t be stressed enough. A common grouse among people who get interviewed (celebrities, those in positions of power, authors etc) is when the interviewer turns up unprepared, asking basic things that they could have found on a quick online search. So do your background research well and save time on asking questions to which answers are already available.
If you’ve put in the right research, you will discover aspects about a person that haven’t been written about much. Make that your beat. Figure out interesting, leading questions that will get you information over and above what is available. A well-researched question also earns you the interviewee’s respect as they see that you have put time and effort into finding out more about them and their work.
The trick for any interviewer is to ask a question that is narrow enough so as not to be vague, but not so pointed that the answer ends up being monosyllabic. Smartly framed, an open-ended question will give the person being interviewed the option to carry on, perhaps go off-point a bit but in turn, reveal something crucial. Give them the space to answer a question, but not so much that you don’t get the answer to your question. For example, instead of ‘Tell us about your project’ which is too broad, ask ‘Do tell us how your project encourages conversations around mental health’.
Too often, interviewers skip listening to an answer after they have fired off their question. Big mistake! You are there to get a story, so listen in when you are getting it. Your prepared questions are only to make sure you don’t end up getting nothing, but to really get something, you have to pay attention to the answers and pick out questions to follow-up with. Your job is it get the interviewee to say things, so keep your inputs at a minimal, only intended to get them to talk more. No matter how aggravating someone’s answers might sometimes be, listen and get your story.
When it comes to controversial topics, the interviewee might try and evade answering. Here is where your skills really need to come in. Try looping back to the same question in different ways. Cajole them by suggesting it is in their interest to answer, work to make them comfortable in the interview by establishing common points of interest, and that could help you get the answers you want. Heckling someone for an answer, seen on broadcast TV mostly, is the least effective way to do it.
It is very important that you get the answer you came looking for. But that doesn’t mean you jump right to it. Once you have a conversation going, get your answer by asking questions that encourage the person to talk. E.g. Why is that? How do you mean? That’s interesting, could you elaborate on that? Even at the cost of sounding naive (but not ignorant!), ask. Get it from the horse’s mouth while you are with the horse!
While an interesting interview will work in any medium, as the interviewer you should prepare yourself based on what medium you intend the interview to be for – print, digital or broadcast etc. That can help you keep your questions to the point for brevity sake in case of print, or more conversational and open-ended, if it is for broadcast.
Surprisingly, but not really, it is when the interviewee sees you shut your notebook, that they really relax and say something that’s an icing for your story. Many a punch lines come out in those last remarks. So don’t turn off your senses completely till you’re out of the door. And if the interviewee didn’t say ‘off-the-record’, it’s still on!
While these are just basic tips, the art of interviewing is in fact really subjective and differs from person to person. Some people get the best profiles done by being persistent with their questioning, while some can just ease their subjects into the conversation to a point that they reveal all themselves. Spend time in trying to figure out what sort of interviewer you are. Find the balance between your comfort, the interviewees comfort and that which will push the limits to make your story great. And always, always, listen.