Happily, there are ways to put subjects more at ease and improve the material you receive. Here are some tips you can start to use today!
Start by doing your own research and talk to competitors
Before interviewing a source, do some research on their business including the people and issues involved. The more you understand someone’s business, the better questions you will be able to ask and the more context you will have around the answers they give you. A technique that can help gain insight into a business is to talk to a competitor. They may be able to give you some valuable insight into the company or industry that will be useful during an interview.
Having some prior knowledge and insights from competitors can also help you ask more poignant follow-up questions to an interviewee’s answers because you will know what they are talking about and won’t be distracted by a lack of understanding on your part.
Be wary of hype
Avoid focusing too much on a company’s latest product or service announcement, or executive hire. Look into the company’s numbers, study where it fits into its industry and ask about what is really happening.
Your job is more than taking dictation. Use your background research, industry knowledge and common sense to see if an answer makes sense or if they actually answered the question you asked. If not, challenge what was said. Remember, too, that when businesspeople quote numbers—such as a percentage of growth year over year—it is largely meaningless unless you place the numbers in context. Two hundred percent revenue growth over the previous year sounds strong, but if the company only did $100 in business previously, it’s not nearly as impressive as it sounds without the context.
Don’t be afraid to play dumb
Many people you interview will default to technical terminology, dense language, jargon or buzzwords that will unlikely make sense to the average reader. Even if you do understand the industry language, ask interviewees to explain things in plain language. Your readers and viewers will thank you.
In-person beats Zoom, Zoom beats email
The pandemic upended many standard journalistic practices. A good reporter can capture a lot of detail and nuance from speaking face-to-face with an interviewee, but try to choose your location as well: homes and offices are gold mines of anecdotes and sparkling details that can enliven your story. Use all your senses and note what the location looked, smelled and sounded like. Plus, sources are often more comfortable and relaxed on their home turf. Interviewing people over email might be convenient (and some sources prefer that method as it gives them more time to polish their answers – and even contact their PR people) but email quotes are more likely to sound like PR than natural conversation.
Learn when to use question lists and when to ignore them
There are times when a question list can help, such as when you have a set amount of specific information you need. But you may be better off using a list as a way of considering what you might ask and then working in a more freeform manner. Often, having an informed conversation rather than checking questions off a list leads to more insights.
Tell the interview subject something they don’t know
Information has value. If you can bring up something the person hasn’t heard—particularly when it’s about a competitor—and can slide it into your conversation, you’ll likely earn some respect. That can translate into more open and interesting answers.
Get them back on topic
Sometimes interviewees needs to go through a topic at their own pace, occasionally rambling and venturing into areas you didn’t expect. That can be gold for reporting, so don’t cut it off too soon. However, if you don’t have a lot of time or if things go too far off the path speak up, explain that you have to get back on topic, and have a question ready to re-focus the interview.