Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mastering the Interview

When I tell people that I've been a journalist for 20 years, their first question is, "What magazines? What topics?"

They're surprised when I list the variety of publications, which range from military, to real estate, to engineering and information technology, to human resource issues, to entrepreneur issues.

"How do you know how to ask the right questions or have enough knowledge about each of those things to ask the questions?" they then ask.

Basically, I tell them, and I'll share with you, too -- it comes down to knowing how to interview people.

So let's start with the basics: What makes up a good story interview?

I'll sum it up in one word:


Convey curiosity to anyone -- anyone -- about their topic in question, and you'll open the floodgates.

And how do you do that?

In my situation, I have the luxury of deadlines that are far off. In my newspaper days and wire service days, sometimes my deadlines were "five minutes ago." I didn't have time to think much about interview questions. But regardless of whether you have a lot of time to prepare, if you always convey to the person that you care about what they have to share, you'll get your story.

Think about it this way: You're sitting at a bar and in walks your favorite movie star. He or she sits down right next to you and starts small talk. What questions would you ask them? And what do you think your demeanor would be towards them? If you're like me, you'd probably fawn over them a little, smile a lot, make eye contact, nod your head ... and ask questions that would give them a little bit of an ego boost.


Now every interviewee from now on is that movie star.

I'm serious.

If you're just a small-town news reporter doing a profile on the local elementary school janitor who has worked for 50 years among children ... give him that movie star treatment.

If you're covering a highly-technical story on an engineering firm that will be giving a nuclear power plant an overhaul ... give that expert the movie star treatment.

If you're on a crime scene and need to glean information from a hard-as-nails cop ... give that cop the movie star treatment.

It works. I kid you not, it worked for me every time.

But sometimes the story does call for a little extra prep and thought.

So tune in for part 2 of this series, when we'll discuss Mastering the Feature Interviewee.

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