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Beat the Clock: It's an Interview, Not a Date
November 09, 2012
The latest in a series of posts about how to manage a big reporting project.
If you are blocking out your calendar correctly, you should have an interview or two at least every day of the week to help you advance your story. When you start thinking about those interviews, you may be thinking about that great seminar you attended where a Big Name journalist said, "Interviews should be like conversations."
This brings me to my next tips in how to better manage your time while reporting a big project.
1. Keep your interviews short. My wife used to tease me that I had the world’s longest interviews. I would be on the phone with someone for two hours – no joke – hoping for that crucial detail that would turn my story into a Pulitzer winner. This was the result of years of going to journalism conferences and hearing superstar writers talk about how they brought people flowers before an interview, sat in a hot tub with them, made them dinner, whatever it took to get them talking.
What I’ve come to realize is that there are a handful of interviews that you will have in your career that will require that kind of time. Most people actually want to talk. The trick is to get them talking about the things that advance your story, not to send them into tangents. Even though you are often dealing with sensitive topics, most interviews for investigative stories can be accomplished quickly. If you are interviewing a whistleblower afraid to go public with her findings, you may need to block out an hour, and you may have to go back for another interview. But most interviews can be accomplished in under 30 minutes. Do not let interviews eat up all of your time.
2. Put limits on yourself. Make that 30 minutes official. Put in your calendar the time it will take you to get to the person’s house or office. Put in 30 minutes for the interview and put in the time it will take you to get back to your office. Schedule another interview or meeting right after so you have some internal pressure to move the conversation forward. I’ve found that it’s actually comforting to sources who are reluctant to talk if I say right at the beginning, "I’m not going to keep you long. I’m hoping we can cover everything in about 30 minutes, and I’ll be leaving for another meeting then."
3. Preview the interview. I like to give people a 90-second preview of the interview. If it’s a difficult source, I will often say, "Journalists sometimes call an interview like this a ‘confrontational interview,’ because I am going to tell you some of the things I found in the course of my reporting and ask you to respond. But I don’t see it that way. I see this as an opportunity to talk specifically about your role here, your perspective on what happened and your suggestions for where I should be looking for more information. I am not going to try to trick you into saying something you don’t want to say or paint you into a corner, and, at any point, you can tell me that you don’t want to answer a question. I may ask the question again, but I’m cannot force you to say something that you don’t want to say. So let’s get started."
4. Always cover the essentials. If you are adding to your outline as you go, you will know what holes you have to fill in your story. Write down 10 questions that you need to have answered and ask them. If you think there’s more information to be had, you can always make a follow-up call. (One question should always be for the person’s cell phone number.)
5. Shut up. You have to be aware of how much you are talking. This is another affliction we pick up from journalism conferences where we are told to make the interview "a conversation." Your interview should feel like a conversation, but it’s not a date. The source doesn’t need to or probably want to know all about your own experiences or your personal history. Fans of Terry Gross and Charlie Rose might hear them in their heads as they are doing the interview.
Remember that you are not on air. You are not expected to be a personality or to sound witty. I still suffer from this problem, but after years of listening to myself on recordings of my interviews, I’ve learned to cut down the prologues that lead up to my questions and just segue quickly from the person’s response to my next question.
Photo courtesy of Jiya James via Flickr.