Here are my best -- and most contradictory tips -- for conducting journalistic interviews. They boil down to this: 1.) Play smart. 2.) Play dumb. But before we even get to any of that there is one other essential rule you must follow: Never begin a journalistic interview without being properly caffeinated. Understood? Good. Now let's get to it.
A good lawyer never asks a question she doesn't already know the answer to. That's not true for journalists, but there is a lesson in that for us. My takeaway from that is that with a new source you should know the answers to the first few questions already. This helps you gauge credibility, gives you an idea of how your subject is going to spin the information, and also gives you a chance to divide your attention so you can notice things in the room -- photos on the desk, books on the shelf -- that could spark insightful questions or become revealing details in your piece.
Appear as if you know more than you do. In a tough interview, if you're trying to confirm information, ask your questions presumptively. Don't ask, "Did you shred the documents?" Instead ask, "Why did you shred the documents?"
But don't be afraid to look dumb in front of a source. It's much better to ask a stupid question in front of one person (or even in a room full of reporters) than to make an error that will be seen by thousands of readers who depend no you for accurate information. Go ahead and ask the dumb question. If you still don't understand, ask it again. "Can you explain that again another way?" Even if you do understand, it can be helpful to repeat the answer back intentionally incorrectly so the source will explain again.
Shut up. Silence is your friend. Be quiet and let your source talk.
Don't telegraph the big one. Don't say "I hate to ask you this, but . . ." Just ask your question.
Please add your own thoughts about interviewing in the comment section.
"A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" isn't on my Top 10 list of favorite books but its lengthy, honest and engaging preface may be one of the best things I've ever read. Now it's edgy writer is coming out with -- I can't wait! -- "a true account of a scrappy underdog" who "surmounts immense obstacles to start his own coffee company."
That's according to The Washington Post's ultimately critical review which casts "The Monk of Mokha," as a patronizing trope of an immigrant trying to make his way in the coffee business.
The WaPo's take on books is often spot on, but I think I'll give this one a whirl anyway. Eggers had me at "biography" and "coffee." What more could I want in a book? Then I learned this was an immigrant's story and now I can't resist.
I'm working on my own long-form narrative piece on a Pittsburgh family that is terrified of being torn apart by federal immigration policy. I can't wait to see how Dave Eggers handles the subject of immigration.
"What didn't I ask you that I should have?"
If you don't ask some variation of this question, you could be missing out on the real story. Asking it requires you to be prepared for the unexpected, to be flexible and to hold your ego in check since what you're really doing is asking your source to point out where you've failed at a core part of your job. But it can lead to unexpected stories.
There are other ways to ask the question, so phrase yours in the way that makes the most sense to you. And, by all means, ask it more than once by changing up your wording. You'll be surprised at the answers people come up with after they've had a few minutes to think. The answers might be even better after a few hours or a day, so don't be afraid to follow up with a phone call to ask again.
I've asked these questions hundreds of times and almost everyone has had a helpful answer. Many times people raise angles I hadn't thought of, and their answers shape my reporting and sometimes lead to follow-up stories.
Sometimes they reiterate points they've already made, but this is helpful, too. It clarifies their values and allows me to better capture the essence of their position.
Most people want an opportunity to be heard. Ask questions that let them know you're listening.
What are your must-ask interview questions? Let me know in the comments section.
Welcome to Perkatory, the place where coffee and creativity converge.
I'm here to blog about how I manage my writing life, and I hope that you'll chime in with your own thoughts and we can help each other become better caffeine-fueled word artists. The focus, at least at first, will be on journalism and creative nonfiction, but I hope we can exchange ideas other genres as well, especially as I expand my portfolio to include ghostwritten memoirs.
My goal is to post weekly, but that may be ambitious while I manage my full-time job as a Washington reporter.
Come back next week to find out the one question you should ask at the end of every interview.