Be sensitive when conducting interviews

The toughest task in good journalism no doubt is staying true to the facts.

The next toughest: getting them.

Whether coming from paper or people, information-gathering affords certain challenges not apparent on its face. Myriad nuances present both opportunity and obstacles; the clinching detail may drop easily within a journalist’s grasp, only to become suddenly unreachable due to a computer glitch or an administrative oversight. Or, maybe, the people holding that key detail in their heads decide at the most inopportune moment to keep it to themselves.

For the first two problems, calling a tech-support specialist or a knowledgeable and sympathetic administrative staff subordinate may shake the facts loose. For the third, a finely tuned sensitivity in conducting interviews tends to do the same.

That sensitivity is not an emotional one; it’s rooted in preparation and in paying keen attention to the interview subject, two things that require time and commitment in advance of the interview. So, before sitting down to question anyone at length for a story or news report, take care to prepare:

Do research — This, more than anything, makes a good interview. How much you know about the person you’re interviewing and their expertise will be reflected not only in the questions asked, but also your attitude. There’s a saying that goes, “Knowledge is power.” Knowledge also evokes confidence, and a confident interviewer is a disarming one. Besides, doing the research also is a show of respect to the interviewee, and a little respect can leverage a lot of information.

List discussion points — Subsequent to the research, the pertinent questions become clear. But to be sure that clarity carries through to the interview, take along a list of discussion points or questions, if for no other reason than to help maintain the interview’s focus should digressions or distractions crop up.

Put people at ease — A comfortable interviewee is an open one. So, if time permits, start off by explaining how the interview should proceed and encourage the interviewee to ask questions about it. Another good ice-breaker: mining one’s natural self-absorption. Typically, our favorite discussion topic is the person we see in the mirror. If that isn’t already the interview’s central theme, start there to show you’re interested in more than just the reason for the interview.

Once they’re at ease, let them talk — Along that line, interviewees may wish to unburden themselves of pre-interview stress or whatever else they have pent up that makes them tense. This could require letting interviewees ramble until their defenses come down. Again, if time is short, the easing period will hinge on one or two key questions designed to hasten relief. Good research will determine what kinds of questions these ought to be.

Don’t finish sentences — Patience is a virtue, and it’s best to appear virtuous when plumbing for personal or sensitive information. Let people avail themselves of silence between questions to organize their thoughts and cultivate answers to questions. Filling in blanks for them only fosters ill will and frustration, and may close people up after you’ve worked hard to get them open.

Record the interview – Another distraction is note-taking, for both the interviewer and the interviewee. Scribbling forces interviewers to try doing two things at once. The interviewee, meanwhile, sits waiting for the pen to stop scratching before finishing their thought, during which they may forget what that thought was. Moreover, note-taking reduces eye-to-eye contact. Give the interviewee all your attention, the better to also stay tuned to changes in facial expression that clue you in to answers possibly going deeper than words. However, feel free to jot down occasional details you’ll want to revisit in the interview or make special mention of while writing the story later.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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