One of the most important skills a journalist, aspiring journalist, writer (or any intelligent human being for that matter) can have is the ability to interview effectively. There are several things that should be considered throughout the process and I’m going to take a moment to outline them.
The first thing to consider is the validity of the information that the source can provide. Are you talking to someone you are reasonably sure if knowledgeable about the subject? Where do you think they got their information? Ernest Hemingway once said,
“Develop a built-in bullshit detector.”
This is essential. After determining that your choice of source is solid, it is important to know how to approach or engage them. Despite what the movies might teach us, getting in someone’s face and demanding they answer your questions is not an effective or reasonably way to get them to oblige your request.
If it is someone that likely has a busy schedule, making an appointment is often a good idea. It shows that you have respect for their time and makes you seem more professional. Most reasonable people (without anything to hide) will likely agree and set up a time to meet and talk to you. If they decline you are left with an important question: How important is their interview?
Can you find another source for a relatively equal purpose or are they essential? If they are essential you can try a more aggressive and proactive approach, though demanding information is rarely rewarded.
If they have a more laid back schedule, you can try a casual approach an introduction. It is important to introduce yourself and politely ask if they can spare some time to talk to you about the given topic. A kind smile and good manners get you a long way in life and this is no exception.
Assuming you managed to land the interview you hoped for, it is important to know what to do during the actual conversation. There are many different interview styles which are all effective in different circumstances with different people, but a few things remain constant.
1. It is always a good idea to come up with some general guide questions ahead of time.
2. Having some basic research on the person ahead of time adds to your credibility.
3. Follow the conversation; you don’t have to stick rigidly to your questions. Sometimes you find the real gold in places you would never think to look.
Keep in mind that most people respond much more openly to an informal conversation than to an interrogation. This means you want to allow them a certain degree of control over the course of the conversation, with occasional prods in the direction you want.
Allow your speech to follow the formality of theirs. Some people get very nervous when they feel like they are being asked a lot of questions. This might cause them to tense up and clam up, the opposite of what you want. If you offer them a more friendly approach they are much more likely to reciprocate. Interviewing has been compared to something like “Instant Intimacy” many times. You are trying to elicit a feeling of trust from a potential source that they really have no reason to place in you.
In general, always keep the target of the interview in mind and be flexible. If you can accomplish this you can learn many things from people. Everyone has a story, no matter how simple the person may seem.