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Interviewing for Dummies: 5 Bare-Bones Tips to Get You Started

Has your blog been lacking flavor? Looking to make your news stories more credible? Sounds like you’ve recognized that you need to start interviewing experts in your field to breathe some life into your content!

But maybe unlike me, you didn’t major in Print Journalism. Without ever learning the basics, scheduling your first interview can be nerve-wracking and overwhelming, which is why I have put together this “Interviewing for Dummies” series. Before we get into anything too fancy, we have to start with the basics.

In person, phone, e-mail, social networking. While setting up your interview it is important to decide on a method that fits into your source’s schedule, but that will also provide honest, uncontrived quotes. Interviews in person are the most authentic and allow you to capture the source’s mannerisms and behavior. Continuing down the scale, phone interviews are a little less authentic, and interviews conducted via e-mail or social media reside at the bottom of the totem pole. E-mail and social media allow the source time to cultivate a perfect response, whereas interviews conducted in person and over the phone prompt a more immediate, genuine response.

prepared journalist

This is what a prepared journalist looks like.

Do some research.You should go into the interview with a general knowledge of your source and the subject you are questioning them about. This will allow you to ask more specific questions and seem more credible. One way to guarantee your source will cut off contact with you is to waste their time. Don’t waste time asking about background information that is readily available to you thanks to the internet. Doing your homework will allow you to get straight to the point at the start of the interview.

Always come equipped with a tape recorder and a notebook. No one has a photographic memory. In order to accurately quote your source in a story you will need at least one, if not two methods of documentation. The best tool for any interview is some sort of recording device. This will prevent you from being glued to your notebook and allow you to be more engaged in the conversation. If you’re planning on recording the interview you must always ask permission first. If you don’t have access to a tape recorder, bring a notebook. Even if you do have a tape recorder, bring a notebook anyways. The notebook allows you to come prepared with a list of questions and take notes as you think of follow-up questions.

If you are relying solely on a notebook for your interview, you will be scribbling frantically. Don’t hesitate to ask your source to slow down or repeat themselves – surely they’d rather that, than be misquoted in your article! Further, it is crucial that you type out your notes in a comprehensible document immediately after the interview in order to avoid any misquotes. You may think that you’ll remember and be able to understand your own notes later on, but trust me – you won’t. Re-write them while everything is still fresh on your brain.

handshake

Always end your interview with a handshake. Don't forget to say "Thank you!"

Be relentless. You came with an agenda, so make sure that the questions you need answered, get answered. Don’t allow your source to beat around the bush or skip over the question. It’s okay to take a break from any given question for a while, but make sure you continue to come back to it until you are satisfied with the answer your source provides.

But at the same time be polite, respectful, and grateful. Always end your interview with a handshake and a “Thank you,” and ask your source the best way that you can get a hold of them if you need any further information or clarification.

Simply treating your source with respect is enough to keep them from hitting “Decline” the next time they see your phone number. Whether you call back the next day for follow-up questions, or the next month with a different story, they’ll be more likely to respond if you make a good impression.

Hopefully the interview process seems less daunting to you now. Getting up the nerve to call and set up the interview is half of the battle. The other half? Well, it comes easy with practice!

Stay tuned for part two next week, which discusses specific techniques for getting great quotes from your sources. ‘Til then…sound off in the comments section with any other tips or some examples of your own interview experiences!



Jenna Markowski

Jenna has a much easier time writing about the media and pop culture than she does writing about herself. She enjoys the simple things in life, like puns and typography. She is an avid fan of pop-punk, Halo 3, Spider-Man and origami, with a slight Taco Bell obsession. Her spirit animal is either a bulldog or a panda bear. You can also connect with Jenna on Google+ and Twitter.

Comments

  1. Eric

    Coming from someone who’s done his fair share of interviews over the years, let me thank you now, Jenna, not only for all the interviewers out there, but all the interviewees, too.

    To me, there’s nothing worse than someone making an entire interview out of “Yes” or “No” questions. But really, the quality of the answers you receive will be proportionate to how interesting and specific the questions are. Doing the research – like you point out – usually spares the person from having to provide their own exposition and opens them up to talking about something people may not know (as opposed to what is readily available, thanks to Google). Once you clear through all that expository brush, I think, is when you’ve the chance to really know a person. It also allows you to ask some more personal questions, or at least ones in more depth, and I think that establishes a better relationship and comfort level between both parties.

    So – seriously – thanks for spreading some interviewing wisdom out there. Much appreciated. :)

    • Jenna Markowski

      No problem, Eric! I’m glad to actually be putting my degree to good use! :)

      You are totally right, if you spend the first half of the interview asking the person how to spell their name, where they’re from, where they got their degree, etc…you’re wasting time that you could be using to get some meaty quotes. With all of that information readily available, you’re just going to make yourself look bad if you come into an interview unprepared.

  2. Mandy Kilinskis

    Fantastic article, Jenna! As I did not major in print journalism, this was really helpful.

    “Do some research” is so important! Wasting people’s time or having my time wasted is my number one pet peeve. If you’re interviewing thought leaders and experts, they’re probably very busy people. Connecting with them is amazing; putting a sour taste in their mouth is not.

    • Jenna Markowski

      Thanks, Mandy!

      You are absolutely right. I think “do some research” is the best tip in this article. If anyone is going to remember anything from this article, it should be that! You don’t want your interviewee sitting there saying “…Duh-doi!” as you ask them trivial information.

  3. Rachel

    Excellent advice, Jenna! I tend to be rather intimidated by the interviewing process — one of many reasons I did not major in journalism — so this is extremely helpful and informative. Looking forward to more on the subject next week! :)

    • Jaimie Smith

      I’m with Rachel. Interviews intimidate me a lot. Whether I am the interviewer or interviewee. I took a Speech class in college and one of our assignments was setting up an interview and perform it in front of the class That may have been one of the hardest assignments even though most of it was scripted. If only I had this advice back then. Great job Jenna!

      • Jenna Markowski

        Thanks, Rachel and Jaimie!

        I’m glad that both of you found this helpful. Hopefully the next time you have to conduct an interview you’ll be able to shake some of those nerves! The more you practice, the better you get at it. I have faith in you! :)

  4. Candice J.

    Great post Jenna! I never thought I would need to know interviewing techniques until I had a child. Having to interview babysitters and daycare providers it would have been great knowing these tips before hand. Especially the “Always come equipped with a tape recorder and a notebook.” No for me a tape recorder isn’t necessary but a notebook def. should have been! I will def. remember these types during my next interviewing process!

    • Jenna Markowski

      Thanks, Candice!

      You bring up a valid point: whether you are a journalist or not, chances are you will encounter the interview process at some point or another throughout your life. I’m glad you found this article helpful, and next time you’ll be ready with your handy-dandy notebook in hand!

  5. Joseph Giorgi

    Honestly, I can’t imagine NOT having a tape recorder (or any kind of digital recording device) during an interview. I’m not a quick enough writer to simply take everything down with pen and paper.

    In other words, I would probably NOT make it as a journalist. :(

    Excellent tips though, Jenna! Should be an awesome series! :)

  6. Jeff Porretto

    I don’t think I’d ever WANT to interview someone, but if I ever have to, say 10 years from now. I’ll be googling like crazy trying to get back to this post! =]

    Thanks Jenna!

  7. Amy Swanson

    Great tips, Jenna!! I interviewed someone for a paper once in college and I really wished I would’ve brought a tape recorder. I was scribbling frantically that by the time I got back home to write it, I needed to decipher exactly what I had written. It was beyond frustrating. But, I learned from that experience and will now bring a tape recorder or something to make sure I don’t repeat that.

  8. Jen

    Great tips Jenna, you’d think some of these are common sense tips, but sometimes we just don’t think about bringing a tape recorder/notebook or doing research before the interview. I have been thinking about doing an interview for my “Industry” blog series, so these posts will help me out for sure! Thanks Jenna =]

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