What 10 Years Of Interviewing Teaches You About Creating Stories

John Baker 4 years ago

Have you ever come away from a conversation and thought “I wish I’d asked him about that”? Or listened to a statement or comment, and realised that two minutes later you had no idea what was said, even though you seemed to understand it at the time?

When I started as a journalist a decade ago the backbone of my interviewing technique, as is common for a newbie reporter, was a sheet with five or six basic questions prepared beforehand. These were basic, obvious reminder-type questions which would give me enough data to create a story; the who, where, when and what.

I would excitedly scribble down the answers, happy that my crude shorthand could just about keep up. And then I would speak to my news editor and happily boast that I’d got the story he had assigned to me. He would then ask about the details of story – and more often than not I would have forgotten them.

That’s because I asked, but I didn’t interview. I wasn’t thinking about what was being said, and if I did I was still too nervous to find out more. I didn’t explore the emotions and thoughts and feelings that were on display. I didn’t listen. Only as I grew in confidence and technique did I realise that if the right questions and the right directions are pursued, it could create spectacular content, far-removed from the original piece conceived in the newsroom. For me, an interview is a conversation refined.

Interviewing takes years to hone, and no two are ever the same. In my career I’ve interviewed everyone from council leaders to Chico and Bill Kenwright. I’ve spoken to a family who had lost their 17-year-old daughter in a road accident a day after passing her driving test, and a young mum cradling her daughter months from succumbing to terminal cancer. I’ve spoken to lottery winners and Commonwealth Gold medallists.

The interview...

You’ll notice that I didn’t include two other questions in the list in paragraph two: the ‘why’, and the ‘how’. That’s because ‘why’ is often a question that requires the most bravery, but it’s often forgotten. Why did you do that? Why did the council do that? How did you feel when that happened?

So you’re sitting face-to-face with your subject. We’ll assume that your tape recorder or camera is fully-charged, that your pens are full of ink (always bring at least one sharpened pencil with you for emergencies), and you have a notepad or two. We’ll assume that you are neat and tidy, and that you’re dressed appropriately.

After thanking them for agreeing to talk to you, some interviewers fire straight into questions about the main topic. My first question, no matter the subject, is always “How are you?” It is simple, to the point, and innocent. It applies to the elderly man who has received an MBE, the man whose house has just burned down, and the ten-year-old who met David Beckham. And it shows you’re interested in them, not just their story.

I then take it to the start, and my next question usually begins with three words: “Tell me about…” It’s a simple, open-ended question that allows the interviewee to paint the story for you in their own words. “Tell me about what happened”. “Tell me about your daughter”. “Tell me about why you’re complaining about the council.”

As they speak, watch for emotional cues. Listen for their language, and treat them appropriately. Don’t use complicated words with children or ill-chosen colloquialisms in a formal setting.

If necessary step in softly and try to fill in the gaps, particularly with our two friends: ‘Why did you do that?’ and ‘how did it make you feel?’ Similarly, don’t be afraid of stepping back and letting them think. Once each part of the story is completed, return to the main thread with another simple question: ‘So what happened next?”

Before long a tale should form, and you’ll have an idea of what has happened before, and what is happening now. It might seem obvious, but far too many interviewers forget to complete the trilogy: What happens next? What are your future plans, and why? How will you do that? What happens if you can’t?

By now you should have a partially completed story – 80% perhaps - but you’ll probably still be missing a couple of other aspects. Some of your pre-conceived questions will seem irrelevant – dump them. However, asking a subject to elaborate on something they’ve said earlier should not be frowned upon, and neither should drawing out further interesting information.

Think of an interview as a tree in a forest; the trunk is the overall story, and the larger branches are the various ideas which sprout out in the form of answers to create a complete structure. Those branches might go in all directions and might become unwieldy if you let them, so you may have to prune them back a little. But sometimes you’ll find a golden egg in a nest at the end, in the form of an unexpected answer or comment – and suddenly you look backwards and that tree has changed shape.

As an example, I once found myself asking a council leader about his hobbies away from the office and found that he likes polishing Samurai swords; that went straight into the headline of the story and changed how it was written.

Don’t ignore visual cues: If they’re wearing an unusual item of clothing or jewellery, ask them politely about it. If they offer to show you a poignant photograph on their phone of someone related to the story, then accept – it might sound strange, but it does happen.

One of my more memorable stories back in the day told of two gentlemen in their late 80s who met every June to reminisce about the D-Day landings. Our conversation was fairly loose and easy-going, despite the traumatic subject. One of them still had a brooch with his late wife’s picture, and towards the end of the interview I asked about it. It seemed amazing and was possibly apocryphal, but that brooch had gone to Normandy – and deflected a bullet away from the soldier’s heart. The bullet mark was still there. In effect the picture of his wife had saved his life – you can guess how the story was written, and only because we started speaking about a little piece of 70-year-old jewellery.

You may have an awkward or difficult question that needs answering, and you’ve left it until the end because you didn’t want to anger, embarrass or upset the subject early. I have several set-up techniques for asking a beast of a question:

1) “I am now going to ask you a difficult question, which you don’t have to answer”

This psychologically prepares my subject, but also shows them that I care.

In their mind, I am on the defensive and control has shifted to them. They have the option to tell me to get lost – but perhaps because I’ve given them that option, no-one ever does.

2) “My editor asked me to put this question to you”

It creates an image of a nasty boss, sitting in his office and making me, the poor interviewer, ask questions that I would never normally ask. But since we’re here….

3) “I’m going to ask you something that our readers/viewers will be interested in”

Again, it shifts the blame for posing a stinker of a question elsewhere. But the question is still posed, and its importance is signposted.

4) The ‘Door in the Face’ technique

Straight out of the social psychology textbook: You want to know the council’s deficit in children’s services, but instead you ask the council for its overall, total deficit – a much larger question that you don’t actually really care about.

It’s likely that your request will be turned down, so THEN you ask for the children’s services deficit - which is what you really wanted anyway.

Because they’ve batted away your first question it becomes more likely that they might respond to a smaller, seemingly-more reasonable request, rather than making it in isolation.

Finish the interview with a biggie: Did you ever think all this would happen? What would you say to someone who is reading/watching this, and recognises some of those symptoms but is scared to go to the doctor? Do you have any regrets?

Thank them for their time and continue chatting, but don’t turn off the camera quite yet. You’d be amazed how many times someone says something that’s worthy of inclusion after they think things are over. If they do, you may wish to ask them if you can use that in the finished piece, or ask them to repeat it so you can write it down. Or you may wish to use it anyway...

I recently tutored a group of youngsters who were interested in journalism. They were due to interview local people who were homeless but had been helped by a local charity, for the purposes of a video package. We worked through the basis of an interview, and questions they might ask and should perhaps leave alone.

But I tried to emphasise that arriving with pre-conceived ideas and questions is only the starting point; establishing a rapport, reacting to answers, and not being afraid to search, is far more important. So when it got to the interviews I found myself watching one of the students, an Oxbridge undergraduate with impeccable diction, speaking to a self-confessed ex-bad lad with a tattoo of a scorpion across his face. And they got on famously, because it was a conversation, not an interview.

This is by no means a perfect piece of advice; most interviewers will find their own methods and techniques, which will hopefully become automatic within time. Most interviews meander, and only the practised interviewer can take them in the correct direction with a combination of memory, bravery, compassion and intelligence. I would argue that the journalistic skills can be learned – the human skills, such as empathy, cannot.

Key take-aways for your best interview yet

  1. Arrive promptly, dress appropriately, prepare properly
  2. Break the ice with simple but personal question to begin
  3. Refer to your notes, but not too much
  4. Short, open questions are often the best ones
  5. Conduct the interview as a conversation
  6. Listen out for any gaps and don’t be afraid to return to elaborate
  7. ‘Why’ is often the most important question
  8. Ask difficult questions, but do it in the correct way.
  9. Sign off with a ‘biggie’
  10. Thank the subject for their time
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  • simon penson

    This is a truly insightful piece John, thank you for sharing it. I know how much valuable information and knowledge there is to glean from journalism and this area is certainly one that a lot of digital writers will take a lot from.

    If you had to give one tip above all others, what would it be and why?

    • John Baker

      Not everyone finds it easy, but before you embark on a career in journalism my main advice would be: learn to talk to people. If you can’t converse and listen, then you’ll be found out on the road, the phone and in the workplace.

      Speaking skills can be picked up from an early age. That might be through a Saturday job, volunteering, joining groups, or just talking to different people in shops and social occasions.

      Journalistic qualifications are important and you will need to practise writing, video etc – but they should be built on a foundation of communication; approaching people, treating them in the correct fashion,learning how to speak to them appropriately – even learning how to write an email eloquently is a start.

      • simon penson

        And do you feel that this is a skill being lost, in part, because of the way younger people take a ‘social first’ approach to conversation and do little face to face?

        • John Baker

          Yes, and also because so many activities and hobbies for young people, particularly those involving console games and watching television, don’t involve any proper communication with the outside world. By proper communication I’ve excluded talking via a headset with other players, or sitting in a dark room with brothers/friends.

          I do also feel that many young people aren’t aware of the world around them – they don’t watch the news or read a newspaper, or even know about how things like governments, mortgages or local authorities work, so they feel a little overwhelmed and underprepared when they go into the working world. That applies to all jobs, not just journalism.

  • John, I couldn’t agree more. I spent 7 years as a 3rd-party recruiter, interviewing executives almost exclusively over the phone. Then I had to “sell” those same candidates to my clients in order to make a living. Having to use the phone greatly improved my listening skills and my storytelling (nothing that wasn’t true, mind you) was critical to communicate well with difficult VP’s of HR.

  • howardkoor

    Great insight. The more conversational the better. Have an agenda and be open to the organic flow of the meeting. Yes, you never know what people will say–even if they don’t mean to.