By Gregg McLachlan
1. Plan. Before you interview someone, have a plan (subject to change, of course) that will guide you from beginning to end. What questions do you want to ask? What topics need to be covered? What questions do you want to start with, and what questions do you want to save until closer to the end?
2. Prepare small talk. Try to have several topics available for small talk when you arrive for the interview. Knowing a bit about a person's background can help you develop subjects. Or perhaps, it's something that you have in common with the person. Either way, effective small talk is not about wasting time. It's about creating a friendly atmosphere.
3. Anticipate answers as part of your plan. If you anticipate how someone may react to a particular question, you'll be able to react more effectively with pre-planned followup questions.
4. First impressions are critical. How you greet someone can help set the tone for the interview. Be a person first. Be friendly. Be courteous. Of course, you can never predict the mood of another person, but at least you're making a good start yourself. (Remember, someone who's unaccustomed to being interviewed by a reporter may be nervous. You need to help ease that nervousness.)
5. Scan the surroundings. Look for interesting items that can help personalize the interview. If you're doing an interview in the person's office, look for plaques, trophies, photos, etc. The items are in the office for a reason: the person is proud of them. Ask about the items.
6. Avoid questions that can be answered with one word (ie. yes or no). This is one of the most basic reminders, but still, interviews can sometimes slide into a series of questions resulting in one-word answers. Questions that start with Explain...? Tell me about... Describe... Why...? help solicit explanations from people.
7. Be alert for intentional drifters. Drifters are interviewees who deliberately change the focus of a question in a way they hope you won't notice. Usually, they start answering your question and then make a subtle transition to another topic (politicians are especially good at this technique). Bring the interviewee back to the original question by using responses such as "I'm still wondering about the original question..." If that fails, go with the more blunt standard: "You didn't answer the question."
8. Public officials can dodge questions. Sometimes public official forget that reporters often ask questions that are of public interest. If you're interviewing a public official who won't answer questions, remind the person they are accountable to the public. If the official still won't talk, another effective strategy can be to ask, "If I was calling right now as a member of the public and asked the same question, what would you tell the person?"
9. Never fake that you understand something. If you don't know what the person is taking about, ask them to explain it. Here's an easy question you can use: "Could you explain that in a way the public will understand?" If you don't understand something and don't ask for an explanation, how will you write about it for your readers?
10. Don't be fixated on your notebook. When you stare down at your notebook to read your questions, you risk the appearance of being cold and/or robotic. You're not standing outside the person's home trying to race through 20 questions as part of a door-to-door survey. Questions should be delivered in a conversational tone, while having eye-to-eye contact with the person.
11. Ask and then listen. Don't be so focused on getting to Question #3 on your list, that you neglect to listen to the person's answer to Question #2. Besides, while you're listening, you can also check out the surroundings in search of items that can lead to additional questions (see tip #4)
12. What time is it? If you want to show the interviewee that you're in a rush and don't have much time to listen to what they have to say, look at your watch. Otherwise, let the interview flow toward a natural conclusion, rather than a forced hint by gazing at your watch.
13. Avoid the soapbox. An interview isn't your forum to express the World According to Mr/Ms Journalist. The interview isn't about what you think. Leave the opinions to the interviewee.
14. Get to the point. If you have a question, make it short. You won't learn much about someone if you're taking up three-quarters of the time by asking long-winded questions.
15. Try some Q.U.O.T.E. I remember a situation several years ago where a reporter tried the Q.U.O.T.E. approach with Canada's Minister of Agriculture at a time when the country was undergoing massive chicken culls due to fear of disease. During a light-hearted interview about his daily life, the minister was asked what animal he'd like to be. "I wouldn't want to be a chicken," he answered. It was a candid quote.
16. Don't try to shout down someone or get defensive. If the interviewee raises his/her voice or gets defensive, keep your cool and concentrate on capturing the emotion.
17. Beware the uh huhs. Nodding your head, or responding with "uh huh" throughout an interview can become annoying. Are you getting any of this? Uh huh. Still need more explanation? Uh huh. These signals, when used repetitively, give the interviewee no variety about your level of understanding or interest regarding what is being said. Shall we move on to tip #18? Uh huh.
18. Silence is OK. Don't always be the first to break silence during an interview. If there's silence after a question, give it time. Remember, if you don't like silence, it's probably the same for the other person. Silence can prompt the interviewee to expand his/her comments.
19. Beware the notebook blitz. Your pre-planning for your interview is designed to help you stay focused, not only in mind, but also in note-taking. Having no plan and hurriedly scribbling everything that is said will leave you with one huge collection of information that's like a spiderweb. It's no wonder you'll be stuck about where to begin when you're back at the office.
20. The right ending. Don't end an interview by telling someone, "I don't know what else I should ask you. . ." It's a thud ending and shows your lack of preparation. Just like at the start of an interview, you need a plan to end the interview. "Thank you for taking the time today to meet with me. We've covered quite a bit. Is there anything that we didn't get time to chat about?" The key words are we've and we. Not I and I as in "I don't know what else I should ask you."