JAWS members offer interview tips

One of the big advantages of membership in JAWS, the Journalism & Women Symposium, is our email list, where we share stories, job postings and advice.

Recently, Linda Kramer asked for advice on interviewing techniques in preparation for a college class she’ll teach this summer. The wealth of response she received was a wonderful example of JAWS’ members expertise and their willingness to share. So here are some tips from among those responses.

Preparation is step one, several members said.

“The scout motto ‘be prepared’ applies, especially in this era of Google,” writes pioneering sports journalist Melissa Ludtke, who’s been in the news recently. “I know what’s available in information about the topic at hand — easily searchable, easy to find — so when a reporter starts off by asking me to go over territory he/she should have already become well acquainted with before the first call was made, I have to say that the interview does not get launched in a promising way. On occasion, I have asked reporters who have called me to talk to go back and do some background research, and then let them know I’d be delighted to talk with them once they have the foundation of the story in place.

“Fine to ask me to fact check elements of it — and I have great respect for those reporters who do — but don’t make me do your homework.”

Amy Resnick recommends “preparation and listening. Nothing frustrates me more than when a reporter comes back from an interview not having asked crucial followups, or not having recognized that something said in a humdrum way was in fact quite newsy.”

Most recommend coming up with some questions you want to ask – but be prepared to veer from the script.

“I suggest a set of questions,” writes Fara Warner. “It allows you to go back to the key points without necessarily having to stick to them all the time.”

Lisa Shepard offers these two key follow-up questions. “How do you know that? (how you find out it’s hearsay)” and “What do you mean? (that always elicits a better answer).”

And Deborah Gump offers two questions that may be the only ones you need: “Walk me through the day / moment / decision …” and “Tell me about … a time / choice / job …”

Once a question is asked comes perhaps the most difficult part – the listening.

“…after asking the question – almost counterintuitively because students sometimes don’t ask questions out of politeness or shyness – shut up,” Gump writes. “Some interviewers hate the silence that can hang in the air. They too quickly follow up with nudging prompts, when all the interviewee needs is time to relive the event in question so she can then share it with the interviewer.”

In fact, let the silence linger. It often prompts your interview subject to fill it with information they might not volunteer otherwise.

And be prepared to spend some time with your interview subject – or to get the interview. Elizabeth Weise of USAToday shared this anecdote: “I’ve been up at Ft. Lewis in Washington all weekend talking to soldiers and one thing I’m constantly reminded of is how good it is to make yourself useful. I was at a vet coffee shop and watched CNN and two local TV stations zoom in, look around and leave.

“I had a cup of tea and waited. The guys volunteering were getting ready for a mailing and came in with two big boxes from Kinkos. I didn’t have anyone to interview so I sat down with them and started folding flyers along side them. By the end of 45 minutes of folding and stuffing and chatting they trusted me enough to start pulling phone numbers out of their phones for me and calling buddies to come in and talk. It can take time but if you don’t have to file immediately, time is your friend.”

Finally, don’t forget these basics: Make sure you get their name spelled correctly, ask who else you should talk to and ask how to reach them for follow-up questions.

Several JAWS members offered great resources:

  • Poynter’s NewsU offers a training module on interviewing that Jill Geisler recommends.
  • Roberta Baskin recommended some great reading – Janet Malcolm’s controversial “The Journalist and the Murderer,” as well as an interview with Malcolm in the Paris Review.
  • Carol Guensburg suggests the article “The Question Man,” an AJR profile of master interviewer John Sawatsky. “The package includes do’s and don’ts, the latter including avoiding back-to-back or ‘double-barreled’ questions. Then your subject can choose which one to answer.”
  • Elissa Yancey suggests listening to good interviewers, including Terry Gross of Fresh Air. Listening to Gross reveals to students ” they see how little she talks and how much she knows.”

We’ll talk about recording interviews in a future post.