Curriculum: Interviewing Techniques

Curriculum for the Interviewing class. Class Description:  Interviewing techniques – the art of the interview.  It’s more than just putting a microphone in front of someone!  Learn how to prepare for your interview, how to phrase your questions, and audio techniques for maximum effect. This training is aimed at news and public affairs volunteers. 


1) Your homework! Be Prepared.
2) Ask Direct Questions
3) Ask Simple Questions... the ones that start with: Who, Why, How, What, Where
4) Ask for details, examples, anecdotes
5) LISTEN!!! Carefully, and Quietly
6) Use Silence effectively
7) Keep your opinions to yourself
8) Ask questions that make people think instead of react
9) admit you don’t understand... say “Tell me more about that” or “I Don’t Understand”
10) Ask the questions listeners would ask
If this is not a live on-the-air interview, ask :
“Is there anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask?” Or something like that
“Who else should I talk to?”

1) Don’t make statements. Ask Questions.
2) Don’t ask long, rambling, overloaded questions.
3) Don’t ask Double Barreled (having more than one possible meaning; ambiguous words)
4) Don’t interrupt.
5) Don’t ask self-answering questions.
6) Don’t use jargon, and if the interviewee does, ask them to explain it.
7) Don’t be afraid of silence.
8) Don’t settle for unjustified accusations.
9) Don’t ask questions that start with: “was” “did” “would” or “had”.
10) Don’t listen out loud: “Ok...” “uh huh”. Nod and make eye contact to show you’re listening.


Setting Up The Interview

Reporters should keep up to date with the stories their station is covering. Before beginning
their shift, they should listen to a number of bulletins, including those on rival stations, so they
know what is happening that day and have an idea of the follow-ups they can expect to do.
They should also have read the local papers which have more space to give to background.
Reporters are often expected to be their own researchers constantly topping up their
reservoir of knowledge about local news, so when they walk through the door and the
producer says “don’t take your coat off...” they know what to expect, and what to do next.

Familiarizing yourself with the story is step one. Step Two is getting a clear idea of what to ask,
which depends on the type of interview involved and its duration.
One tip - if you are going out for a 30 second clip, there is no point coming back with 20 minutes
on tape. Five minutes beforehand spend thinking out the questions is worth half an hour’s
editing back at KBOO.

Before leaving the newsroom, make sure you have your facts right. There is nothing more
embarrassing or more likely to undermine the reporter’s reputation and that of KBOO than an
ignorant and ill-informed line of questioning:
Reporter: “Mr. Smith, as hospital administrator, just how seriously to you view this typhoid
Mr. Smith: “Hmm. I’m actually the deputy administrator, and two isolated cases hardly constitute
an epidemic. Oh yes, the name is Smythe. Now what was the question?”
What’s the chance of a successful interview?
Set up a chain of thought by jotting down a few questions and arranging them in logical order.
Sometimes the mind becomes clearer when its contents are spilled on to paper. Even if you
never refer to your notes, this can be a worthwhile exercise.

Be mindful that whatever you ask has to fit the angle and length required by the story, and the
result has to be relevant to your audience. Beware of leaping off at tangents that might interest
you or a like-minded minority, but would be irrelevant to the majority. Keep to the point

If time is of the essence, no reporter can afford to waste it by heading the wrong way down a
motorway or arriving at the wrong address. Arriving late for an interview only raised every body's
blood pressure. Check the arrangements before leaving, and allow plenty of time to get there.
Get directions when you are setting up the interview.
Check your recorder before you leave. this is BASIC, yet often forgotten in the rush. Check it out
before you take it out! Don’t forget spare batteries.

Almost as important as the interview itself is the Pre-Chat. This is when reporter and subject
establish a rapport, and the reporter sounds out the course they’ve charted before the interview.
Even if the deadline is 15 minutes away, your manner must be calm and relaxed, polite yet
assertive, but never aggressive. Approach is all important. If the interviewee is inexperienced
and nervous, they will need to be relaxed and put at ease. conversely, nothing is more
unsettling than a nervous reporter. Even if your adrenal gland is running riot, you must cover
your trepidation with a polished performance.
A pleasant greeting, a firm handshake, and a good deal of eye-contact is the best way to begin,
with a clear statement about who you are and which radio or TV station you represent. Eye
contact can work wonders for calming the other’s nerves.
Never rehearse an interview, just discuss it. Repeats of interviews lose their energy and sparkle.
Even nervous interviewees usually perform better when the adrenalin is flowing. Agree to a runthrough
only if you think there is no other way to calm your interviewee’s nerves, but make sure
your recorder is rolling. Then, if the “rehearsal” goes well, you can ask the first few questions
again when you sense they are into their stride and suggest dispensing with the retake. The
alternative is to warm them p with some minor questions before getting down to the nitty gritty.
Humor can effectively bring down the barriers, a joke at the reporter’s expense can often relax
and interviewee and lower their defenses, but obviously humor cannot be forced.

Body language is also important. The way we sit, how we cross our legs and arms, reveals a lot
about how we feel. If your interviewee is sitting legs crossed and arms folded, then you know
they are on the defensive and needs to be relaxed.

there is more to the art of interviewing and developing the ability to engage complete strangers
in intelligent conversation. Good Questions produce Good Answers. the secret is to think
ahead to the answers you are likely to get before asking your questions.

Most interviewers would agree that preparing questions is constructive in planning the
interviews, but sticking closely to a list of written questions can be unhelpful during the course of
the interview itself. the problems are:
1) Eye Contact is Lost
2) When the interviewer is concentrating on the questions, they are unable to listen to the
3) Fixed questions make for an inflexible interview.

The Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How framework for writing copy applies equally tot he
news interview and the type of questions the interviewer should ask.
No reporter wants to be left with a series of monosyllabic grunts on tape, so questions should
be carefully structured to produce good useful quotes rather than one work comments.
*The question WHO calls for a name in response
*WHAT asks for a description
*WHEN pins down the timing of an event
*WHERE locates it
*WHY asks for an interpretation or an explanation
*HOW asks for an opinion or an interpretation.
Questions beginning with these words will propel the interview forward and yield solid facts:
* “Who was hurt in the accident?”
*”What caused the accident?”
*”When did it happen?”
*”Where did the accident occur?”
*”Why did it take so long to free the trapped workers?”
*”How did you manage to get them out?”

Inexperienced reporters often fall into the trap of asking questions that produce yes/no answers.
they may come away with some idea of the story, but will seldom have anything on tape worth
Interviewer: “Critics would say the plan to put a factory on the green land site is ill-conceived.
Would you agree?”
Developer: “no.”
Interviewer: “Why not?”
Developer:”Well, how could you expect me to agree to that... I’m the one who’s building the darn

The opposite of the yes/no question, but which can have the same effect, is the questions which
is so wide its scope is almost unlimited:
Interviewer: “as a leading clean-up campaigner, what do you think is wrong with porn shops and
peep shows, anyway?”
Leave your tape recorder running and come back in an hour, when she has finished! Pin the
question to one clearly defined point:
“What’s the main reason you’re opposed to these porn shops? or “which peep shows in
particular do you want cleaned up?”
Question scope is important. Make it too narrow and your interview runs like a car which keeps
on stalling. Open it up too wide, and it can run away from you.

To maintain the logic of the interview each question should naturally succeed the previous one.
If the interviewer needs to refer back to a point, this should be cone neatly and followed through
by another questions that progresses the argument:
Interviewer: “going back to the oil spill, what can we do at a local level to support people doing
the work in the Gulf?”

The interviewer should ask one question at a time, otherwise a wily subject will be able to
choose which to answer, and which to ignore. Even the most willing of subjects may forget half
the question:
Bad question: “What form will your demonstration take, and do you think City Hall will take
Better: “What kind of demonstration do you plan to put on?” following the answer with “What
effect do you think it will have on the views of the city council members?”

An interview is not a mental exercise. Like news, it deals with matters concerning real life. As
we said earlier, one of the problems with talking to experts in any field, is they are liable to
speak in abstractions or jargon. The point of relevance to the audience is whether the point
needs to be included for the story to make sense.
As with news writing, examples should be concrete and real. If you begin by asking how high
inflation will rise, be sure to follow it up with a question about whether wages and salaries are
likely to keep pace or what it will do to the price of bread.
If it is a question about inner city poverty, do not just talk about living standards, ask about the
food the people eat or get a description of their homes.
Get away from the abstract and relate ideas to everyday realities.

A leading question is one designed to lead interviewees into a corner and trap them there. More
often it has the effect of boxing-in the reporter with allegations of malice, bias, and unfair play.
Take the example of an interview with an elderly farmer who was seriously brunt, trying to save
his photograph album from his blazing house.:
Interviewer: “Why did you attempt such a foolhardy and dangerous stunt over a wordless
photograph album? Surely that’s taking sentimentality too far?”
The question, like most leading questions, was based on assumptions:
* Saving the album was stupid.
*It was dangerous.
*The farmer’s motive was sentimental.
*And that a sentimental reason was not a valid one.
But, assumptions can prove to be false:
Farmer: “My wife died three years ago. I kept all my most precious things together. the deeds to
my house and all my land were inside that album with the only pictures I had of my wife. It was
kept in the living room, which was away from the flames. I thought I had time to pull it out, but in
my hurry I fell over and blacked out. Now I’ve lost everything.”
The scorn of the audience would quickly shift from the farmer to the callous interviewer. If
somebody is stupid or wrong or to blame, draw out the evidence through polite and sensitive
interviewing and leave the audience to pas judgement.
Bad Question: “You knew the car’s brakes were faulty when you rented it to Mr. Brown, didn’t
you? The car crashed, he’s in the hospital, and it’s your fault. How do you feel about that?”
1) “When did you find out the car’s brakes were faulty?”
2) “But later that morning, before the brakes could be repaired, didn’t you rent it out to another
3) “Weren’t you worried there could be an accident?”
4) “How do you feel now your car is written off and your customer, Mr. Brown, is in the
Expose the fallacy of an argument, not by putting words into a person’s mouth, but by letting the
evidence and their own words condemn them. Leading questions are frowned on by the courts.
the same should go for interviews.

Always check your facts before you launch into an interview. Clear up details like the following
during the pre-chat:
Interviewer: “Mr Schaeffer, why have you decided to fire half your workforce?”
Mr Schaeffer: “They have not been fired.”
Interviewer: “You deny it?”
Mr Schaeffer: “What has happened is that their contracts have expired and have not been
renewed. And it’s not half the workforce, its 125 staff our of a total of 400.”
Interviewer: (sheepishly) “Oh.”
If you don’t have the full picture, get filled in before the interview begins, but remember, as soon
as you rely on your interviewees for background, you are putting them in a position where they
can manipulate the interview to their advantage.

The words “and finally” are best avoided during an interview, as a point may arise which meg
beg a further question or clarification, and saying “and finally” twice always sounds a bit foolish.
Other phrases such as “briefly...” or “one last point” may also serve as wind up signals
if necessary. Save your gestures and hand signals for experienced studio staff.

An interview should go out with a bang and never a whimper. It should end in a way that gives
the whole performance a bold and emphatic full stop.
If during a live interview a guest insists on going on over time, then do not be afraid to butt
in with a polite “Well, I’m afraid we must stop there,” or “That’s all we’ve got time for, thank
you very much.” If they refuse to take the hint, it is the job of the producer to switch off the
microphone and usher the guest out.

Interview Simulation: TAKING CONTROL
This is a power game requiring 2 players. One plays the reporter, and the other is the
interviewee. the story is about a landlord who has bought houses that are due for demolition
and is renting them to tenants who he is keeping in squalor for profit.
The story concerns 8 houses on Bridge Street split into single and double rooms, some are in
need of repair and all are badly inadequate.
The landlord, Albert Smith, is leasing the houses cheaply from the local housing authority,
and is charging high rents. The tenants are mainly poor immigrants. A shortage of rented
accommodations means they have to stay there or become homeless. they have complained
about the squalid conditions which they say are to blame for the constant ill-health of some of
their children.
The reporter’s assignment is to interview the landlord to to expose what is happening and, in
a manner that is both fair and reasonable, call him to account. The landlord’s aim is to defend
his reputation and show himself up in the best possible light. If the local authority accepts
the case against him, he could lose his houses. The central plank of his defense is that the
immigrants would be homeless without him. He knows that if the local authority ruled his houses
uninhabitable, they would then have the responsibility of housing the immigrants.
The reporter has once constraint upon him - if the landlord disputes any facts that are not
included in this assignment, the reporter must not be dogmatic about the,’
Both parties should finish reading the brief and then re-read it. The reporter should then spend
up to 5 minutes thinking up questions, in which time the interviewee should anticipate the
questions that could be asked and prepare a defense.
The exercise is one of control. both parties want the interview to go ahead, though both are
hoping for a different outcome. Each should try to take charge and to bend the interview to
his own purposes - one to expose the facts, the other to gloss over them and turn them to his
advantage by making them seem more acceptable. Record the interview. Conduct it in front of a
small audience of classmates who can later offer constructive criticism. You have 15 minutes to
conduct the pre-chat and the interview.
Afterwards discuss the interview. who came out on top and why? How did the reporter attempt
to expose the facts and how did the landlord try to cover them up? How did each side feel about
he attempts to manipulate him during the interview? Were the right questions asked? How did
you resolve the differences in opinion about the facts of the story? What did the audience think?