Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Art of 'Question'- How to Conduct a Good Journalistic Interview

Most people would agree to the general idea that “journalism”, apart from other things, is all about creativity. I couldn’t agree more. What could be more pleasing to a journalist’s soul than a well-rounded, unbiased, and beautifully crafted piece of writing after long hours of arduous research?

But what seems to escape most writers, is the fact that central to any journalist’s life and career, is his/her ability to conduct productive and insightful interviews with the right people in an ethical and fluid manner. In fact, a journalist’s interviewing skills could make or break the story (and his/her career too!).

Here are a few pointers for polishing your general journalistic interviewing skills. These guidelines served me well in my time as a correspondent and they can make life a tad bit easier for the newbie writer, wanting to make a mark in the journalistic world.

1) Select interviewees with care: You have a certain picture in your head about the way your article is going to turn out. So before you start the whole process of the “interview”, make sure you have selected “interviewees” best suited to the subject at hand. Asking a chocolatier about Miso soup, won't really get you anywhere.

2) Make appointments: A lot of budding journalists tend to make the rookie mistake of landing up at an interviewee’s door and expecting to be entertained with top-notch answers to his/her questions. That is simply not done. Respect your interviewee's value for time. Make sure you call beforehand and make an appointment with your interviewee before you meet him. Even if you are a business journalist with daily deadlines, ensure that your “source” is alright with talking to you when you call. If not, ask him/her for a suitable time and call back accordingly.

3) Find a good location: You'd be amazed to find out just how quickly the most tight-lipped person can turn around, given comfortable surroundings. The nearest Barista may not be the ideal location to meet with your contact and get him talking. Why not try his home? Or his office? This trick may not get you the whole story, but will definitely open avenues for a warmer and more open relationship with your knowledgeable new friend -doorways to more meaningful interviews in the future!

4) Be punctual: When you do manage to get a suitable appointment with your contact, make sure you stick to the appointment time. Do not make excuses about traffic, your dog swallowing your car keys, or the house setting itself on fire. No one likes tardiness and your failure to be on time will be bad for your reputation. So be alert and stay aware of the tick-tocks.

5) Research, research, and then research some more: Good journalists will have an in-depth knowledge of the case in hand, before they actually set out to ask the questions. It is therefore imperative that you do your homework before your interview. Make sure you are well versed with the facts before the interview instead of fumbling with details while conducting it.

6) Prepare your questions: When you are clear about the basic outline of your story, jot down all possible questions you can think of that related to the topic. Make sure the answers to the questions are not of the obvious kind. Also ensure that your questions are well researched, intelligent, and worth answering. Of equal importance is the need to prioritize your questions so that at least the most relevant ones get answered even if the peripheral ones don't.

7) Make sure rules of interview are clear: Before the interview begins, make sure both you and your interviewee are clear about the rules underlying the process. For e.g., your interviewee should know well in advance about the basic structure of the topic at hand, some of the fundamental questions that need to be answered, and most importantly, what goes “on record” and what doesn't.

8) “There is no such thing as a stupid question”: Wrong! Interviewees do not like being asked questions which insult their intelligence. So if you are about to ask a question which could turn out to be a veritable faux pas, -check yourself! Take a step back, think about the question again, rephrase it if necessary, and then present it more intelligently.

9) Side with open-ended questions: This approach works wonderfully, especially if your interviewee is the type of person who has to be goaded into “talking”. It is best to stay away from questions to which answers could be a simple “yes” or a “no”. Instead, begin your questions with phrases such as “could you describe...” or “what do you think of...”or even “tell us about....” Occasional prompting is bound to elicit detailed responses that are more pertinent to your topic and interviewee's persona.

10) Be confident: Even if the person you are about to interview has a formidable persona that leaves you gasping for breath, trust in yourself and your capabilities - enough to appear confident about “owning” that very room and the interview in itself. Work at developing a combination of humility and confidence and you can't lose.

It would be safe to say that not only does journalism stir up the professional’s creative juices, it also happens to be a very noble profession. Being a journalist entails responsibility - to the media industry, to the audience, and to the journalist him/herself. It is not an easy task. As was well mentioned in a certain superhero flick –“With great power comes great responsibility.”

So each journo must strive to get the facts right, to conduct himself/herself ethically, professionally and openly, and to successfully engage his/her audience in the “reality” as it stands.

Incorporate these strategies into your regular interviewing techniques and watch the quality of your reporting go from “good” to “better” to “awesome”. Happy interviewing!

 - About the writer:

Shreyasi is a full time business journalist with a London-headquartered steel information company. She currently covers the South Asian steel and raw materials industry from Singapore. Her daily work as South Asia correspondent involves talking to lots of interesting professionals in the steel and steel making raw materials industry, writing daily news articles about the major market and other trends in the happening world of ferrous dreams. She specializes in the iron ore export market to China. When not working, she spends her time reading voraciously, visiting the local libraries, writing freelance about any topic under the sun (whatever catches her fancy), dabbling in the culinary arts, meditating, sitting by the ocean watching the waves, singing, swimming and spending lots of quality time with her husband and dog. She loves animals only second to God and her family and is passionate about wildlife, environment and animal welfare issues. She is also specially inclined towards learning as much as she can about spirituality, cosmology and mysteries of civilizations long gone.

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