Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Advice for young journalists--Part 1: The Essence of Interviewing

First in a series on advice about writing, publishing, etc., for writers and journalists.

I get asked about writing and reporting every week, and I've been promising to get some ideas down for students and aspiring writer/journos. As I create them, I'll stash them all on the new Advice for Writers page on my main site.

Steve Brill asked me to come up to talk to his journ class at Yale last week, which finally made it begin to happen. He wanted me to focus on interviewing, so I put three lists of advice together, looking at it from different angles.

Yale was incredible, BTW. I still have to put together my post on that.

Below is the first set of advice. I'll post the other two lists later in the week. Then on to other writing topics down the road.  And you might also check out my video series on the writing process for Columbine. There are two there on structure, and two on character.

Ten Interview Tips: What Makes Them Tell?
  1. Always write out the questions in advance. (Yes, on paper/PC/iPhone.)
    • Even if you only have 30 seconds to prepare.

  2. Rarely look at those questions once you start.

  3. If you followed the questions more or less in order, you failed.
    • It means every time they spilled something more interesting, you brushed it off and stuck to your agenda.

  4.  The best things they have to tell you are the secrets they are holding onto. Those are not on your paper.
    • All the other reporters will ask the stuff on your paper. Your story will be unique if your sources answered the invisible “questions” no one knew to ask. (If it’s a question/answer format, you failed.)

  5. First hurdle, and the biggest: trust. (“Safety” also works.)
    • How do you make them feel safe? Have you thought about it? (About all subjects, and about this dude or old lady in particular?)
    • If it came down to hurting them vs. a better story, which would you choose? Are sure? You can fool yourself, but not them. They will smell it on you.

  6. Ultimate hurdle: Did it feel like a conversation?
    • If it ended feeling like a great interview, it was not. People don’t confide secrets in “interviews.” They spill shit in conversation every day.

  7. Empathy. Empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy.
    • It’s all about listening. (Much harder than it sounds.)
    • When they wince, or get nervous, or sad . . .  shut the fuck up. They want to tell it: give them the floor. Then acknowledge, in some way, what just happened.
    • Let go of your needs (temporarily) and get in their head. What’s bugging them? Why? If their point seems trivial, you don’t get them yet.

  8. Method writing / method interviewing
    • Not for everyone, but the core of what I do.
    • “Objective” does not mean “keep your distance.”

  9.  Get on their wavelength. They are in charge of the tone.
    • Are they skittish, reverential or cracking jokes about their concentration camp time? (That happened to me.) If your mood is out of whack, conversation will not gel. At least demonstrate respect for their approach. (It’s their approach to the experience—not just to the interview.)

  10. Every interview should be part of your lifelong research project to answer two questions: Why do people tell me their secrets? What are they getting out of it?
    • If you can’t tell that those are the same question, you will never answer either.
    • If that’s not your lifelong research project, select a new career.


  1. Thanks. Is it useful at all?

    I also wasn't sure if some were a bit oblique. I planned to expand on them while I spoke, and not explain the whole damn thing on the cheat sheet. But I also wanted it to be useful to others.

  2. Oblique? To me it's all quite clear, straightforward.

    I would be careful in using the sh*t and f*ck word, if this is to be an official list.
    But then, I'm European ;-).

    Method interviewing. Interesting.

    And so cool you were at Yale...

  3. Nice.

    (But I thought Europeans thought we were the prudes? haha.)

    OK, you guys inspired me to create the shell of the Advice page and fill in a few things. It's here:


  4. All depending on circumstances...

    Good luck.

  5. This is extremely useful. Thank you.

  6. This is fantastic advice. Will keep it on hand. Thanks Dave

  7. Nice thoughts and helpful thoughts on interviewing. Saw you on C-SPAN Washington Journal this morning (12/22/2012)talking about Newtown and Columbine--excellent segment.I still would have trouble personally revisiting the Columbine tragedy but may pick up your book as important after the Winter Holdidays.

    On interviewing, as an attorney who has done a lot of depositions and taken a lot of testimony--pre-trial discovery depositions (questions and answers of parties to lawsuits and witnesses under oath), I have found that a "lever" that helps to get worthwhile information from the individual is to reveal during the early questions that you know a lot--show that you are apparently very familiar with the facts or have bilt technical expertise, etc.); when the witness or interviewee realizes that you have considerable working knowledge about the subject of the interview or testimony, they often stop trying to hold back and give you straight and useful answers. James K. Riley

  8. "Spill shit:" Awesome. And you are so right! Thanks for sharing these tips. I'm reading Columbine now. Unbelievable, and so well-told. Empathetic truth in reporting.