Think like a journalist: 10 interviewing tips

At Vertical Leap, we adopt a magazine mindset when it comes to your content marketing. We know from experience that, when you think like a publisher, you get better results. That’s also why we recruit professional journalists to create content for our customers.

One of the key skills that journalists have is knowing how to research, conduct and write interviews. Interviews play a key role in adding professionalism to a content marketing strategy – they add a totally different dimension to your content and demonstrate that you’re rubbing shoulders with the key influencers in your industry.

An article is enriched with quotes from experts. Real people’s opinions and soundbites add colour, personality and credibility to an article.

1. Research your interviewee

An interview is as much about preparation as it is about asking questions. Good interviews come from good research. Obviously you need to know what your interviewee does for a living, but do you know their interests? Do you know what is likely to push their emotional buttons?

A creative person is likely to be inspired by visual language. An IT geek may be motivated by logic and process. If you find areas of common interest, you will have things to discuss that help you build a rapport. You may also find things that your interviewee has talked about before. You can ask them about previous statements and expand on those or re-qualify them.

Use LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google and any other useful tools to do your research. You could also speak to colleagues or friends of your interviewee. Don’t forget to read their own website.

I once interviewed a pop band who were frustrated by my boring and mundane questions. This was before the world wide web and the only research I did was reading the press release on the tube on the way to the record company. The interview was fractious and uninteresting.

2. Agree interview questions beforehand

Corporate managers who partake in media training are often advised to control the situation when they are contacted by journalists. The advice is to not just answer on the phone but to ask which questions the journalist wants you to answer, then to call back with prepared answers. This gives you time to think before you speak.

Most interviewees are not corporate managers. They may be shop owners, artists, charity workers … Most people are not used to giving interviews and they can be nervous. Explaining the interview topics, and what you hope to cover in the interview, beforehand, is a good way to put them at ease.

3. Pick a suitable time and place

Where you conduct an interview is important. You don’t want lots of background noise encroaching on your recording, and you don’t want office interruptions. Agree a suitable time – there’s nothing worse than you planning for an hour that turns into, “Sorry, I have to go in 15 minutes.”

If you are conducting the interview on the phone, make sure you are both comfortable and that there is no background noise.

Ask your subject where and when they would like to talk – where they will feel relaxed and able to give you the required attention.

4. Check your tech

There’s nothing worse than planning to record using a dictaphone and finding you don’t have batteries, or that it isn’t fully charged. What if it isn’t working? Do a practice run to check sound and ensure you have enough tape or storage space.

Likewise, if you are using a camera, or a camera phone, make sure it is fully charged and has enough memory. A phone on a low charge could also be disastrous if you need to call the interview because you are held up in traffic.

On top of all that, your tech devices may fail. What will you do then? You should revert to the lowest tech – a notepad and pen. If you have fully prepared, you will have already made notes of your questions and the topics you want to talk about. This will make it easier to make efficient and accurate notes so you can quote your interviewee correctly.

5. Make it business and pleasure

A relaxed interviewee will be more open. Remember, you are trying to record the thoughts of the other person – not impose your thoughts on them. Your task is to draw out their thoughts in a businesslike and measured way, while making the experience pleasurable for your subject.

Build a rapport by pandering to the subjects close to your interviewee’s heart. People like to talk about things they care about – they will talk emotionally and passionately and that encourages them to be more frank. Emotional statements are more powerful quotes.

That doesn’t mean generate anger and frustration. Quite the opposite. Use empathy and show interest. If you enjoy the discussion, so will your subject.

6. Have a conversation

An interview is not an inquisition. Don’t just run through a list of questions and write down answers, producing a formulaic Q&A. Sometimes that format is great for an article, but there’s no storytelling involved in a Q&A.

Even having planned your questions and the topics you are looking for, a general conversation will reveal things you didn’t expect.

Your interviewee may be passionate about a charitable cause or a hobby. These things, when probed, could reveal a whole new angle that puts the interviewee in a new light.

7. Listen for soundbites

People generally don’t talk in concise, coherent and complete sentences. They may start to make a really clever point without completing the statement and then veer off into another point.

Imagine transcribing the interview recording and discovering this not-so-great statement: “The three great things about working as a doctor are that you get to help people and that no two days are the same. As much as you might assume each day is the same. The other day I had this patient who…”

Three things? What was the third thing? Listening for complete statements is important while you are interviewing something. Especially, listen for soundbites that would make good headlines or pull-out quotes.

One great technique is to ask your interviewee to repeat or re-phrase something. Or you can re-word their statement back to them in a better way and ask them if that’s what they are trying to say.

8. Thank them

Manners cost nothing. When someone gives up their time, and their story, for you, the least you can do is thank them.

Thank them at the interview but also afterwards, by phone or email. This is a good way to reassure them that the interview went well. First-time or inexperienced interviewees may feel nervous about what they said, or how they came across.

Let them know they have nothing to worry about and that you will check your facts with them before you publish.

9. Check your facts

Don’t publish without checking facts. First, your subject may tell you things that need to be verified. They may also mention product names or people – check how to spell these.

You don’t need to share a draft of your article with the interviewee, but you can check their statements with them and sharing a draft is a good courtesy. Remember you need to maintain that rapport because you may need their help again sometime.

10. Promote it

Content marketing is 50% writing and 50% promotion. Unseen content is useless – make sure you get it out there. Encourage people to share it and comment on it.

Promotion starts at the planning stage. Don’t forget the thought leader that you are interviewing has their own audience. They may promote it themselves, or their peers and followers will promote the content.

Talking about promotion, bookmark this instructographic

Here’s a visual summary of all these tips for you to bookmark and share. We will love you just a little bit if you do.

Top ten interviewing tips for journalists

Watch on SlideShare

In the presentation below, we highlight how a journalistic approach and magazine mindset can significantly enrich your brand content.

Want to try interviewing for yourself?

If you’d like to incorporate interview-style content in your content marketing but don’t have the time or resources in-house, let us do it for you. Our specialists are skilled at connecting with influencers in your industry and creating highly engaging pieces that get widely shared on social media. To find out more, call 023 9283 0281 or submit your details here.

Steve Masters profile picture
Steve Masters

Steve (RIP) was Services Director for Vertical Leap. He started professional life as a magazine journalist, working on music magazines and women's titles before becoming a web editor in 1997, then joining MSN to work purely in online publishing. Since 1999 he has worked for and consulted to a broad range of businesses about their digital marketing.

More articles by Steve
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