Interviewing: The Oregon Method | Oregon State University Press | 2014
Chameleon Interviewing – How changing your approach can be the key to a great interview
As a journalist, I’ve interviewed everyone from governors to farmers, celebrities to soccer moms—sometimes within the space of a single week. With each, my goal was always the same—to get them to open up and share their story. But talking to a craggy oyster farmer while standing knee-deep in the mud is a very different experience than sitting in a plush hotel suite with an A-list actor, and each person requires a different approach.
Good interviews entail flexibility. The person, the place and the circumstances are going to change every time, and the journalist should adapt to the shifting landscape. It’s not enough to smile and nod in all the right places, or to make sure to ask every question on your list. Instead, you must always be aware of where the conversation is, where it’s been and where it needs to go. And then, of course, you need to get it there.
For some, this constant assessment is second nature. But for most, it takes practice. Great interviews are guided conversations with specific goals in mind, and sources respond differently to different guides. For that reason, it can be useful to subtly switch styles from interview to interview — and even mid-way through— depending on who you’re talking to and what you’re asking.
You already do this sort of thing all the time. You present different sides of yourself according to what you want to project, or what others expect from you. Maybe you were the Supportive Boyfriend at your girlfriend’s lacrosse championship. Perhaps you were the Angelic Grandchild at your Nana’s 80th birthday party. It’s possible that you are the Life of the Party on any given Saturday night. Playing up each of these personas doesn’t make you any less you, and it doesn’t make you some kind of phony. Changing your approach from situation to situation makes it easier to connect with people—the ultimate goal in both journalism and in life.
In interviewing, the approach you take depends not only on the person you’re talking to, but on the interview itself. For example, you would probably want to adopt a sympathetic style when interviewing someone about an emotional experience, but not when asking a reluctant official about sensitive documents. But if the latter interview somehow became about a relevant emotional experience, you’d likely want to switch gears.
Sometimes the appropriate style isn’t immediately obvious. For example, people in positions of power often prefer a subordinate approach that both recognizes and respects their authority. But others might be more receptive if you meet them as an equal. Still others may expect you to take the lead. You never know until you’re sitting across from someone, which is why a little intuition and agility go a long way. And, of course, some careful research beforehand is likely to yield valuable clues.
So what interviewing style might work for you? There are endless approaches you can try, and you’ll doubtless develop your own arsenal of go-tos. But here are a few tried-and-trues that might help get you started.
Your first few interviews are hard—maybe even a little bit painful. You may have gleaned a million pearls of wisdom from your professors, painstakingly written a list of thoughtful questions and faithfully rehearsed what you plan to say, but there’s no real way to know what an interview entails until you actually do it. It takes years to get really good at it.
So why pretend that you know what you’re doing? You can acknowledge that you’re still learning. While setting up your interview, tell your sources that you’re new at this, and are going to try your best not to mess it up. Chances are, this will put them at ease. It might even inspire them to open up more than they otherwise would. If you get flustered or make a misstep, you can simply ask them to forgive your inexperience. In the right situations, they will not only forgive you, they’ll end up rooting for you too.
Role Model: You.
Word to the Wise
Beware, however, of taking The Student too far. Revealing and even playing up your inexperience can never atone for wasting the source’s time by either being obnoxious or unprepared.
THE ‘AW SHUCKS’
This is a variation on The Student and can be employed long after you leave college. The premise is basically this: “Aw shucks, I’m just a journalist trying to learn all about this fill-in-the-blank and I need you to spell it out for me to make sure I understand.”
Why would you essentially play dumb, you may ask? Well, because it gets the job done. People love explaining something they know to someone who doesn’t. It’s human nature. The Aw Shucks allows your source to feel good about him or herself while giving you the clear, comprehensive information you need. You already know that you’re smart, and you can continue to prove it by putting pride aside in the name of a killer interview.
Role Model: Susan Orlean, a longtime writer for The New Yorker. “I don’t play dumb or helpless, but I try not to come off as slick and sophisticated. It is useful, but the fact is that this is also the way I feel: far from home, nervous about the story, somewhat exposed. (One of my sources) had this kind of protective relationship with me: “What’s a little girl like you doing out here?’ He was always acting exasperated at my goofiness, joking about how many times he had to tell me the name of a particular flower.”
Word to the Wise
Similar to The Student, The Aw Shucks should never be used to mask the fact that you haven’t done your research, and is best employed when you’re trying to distill complicated information down to its simplest explanation.
One of the best profile writers is, in my opinion, a mild-mannered, mustachioed man named Gary Smith. A longtime writer at Sports Illustrated, Smith built his career on writing deep, insightful profiles that reveal more than the story of one person — they reveal something universal about the human condition. For example, a story about a college football coach who lied on his resume instead becomes a meditation on why people lie. As one of his subjects told The New York Times: “People warned me he’d get deep inside my head, but I had no idea. That piece could have saved me 20 years of psychoanalysis.” Smith is called the “Sports Whisperer” for a reason.
This kind of interviewing goes far beyond searching for the ‘what’ and delves deep into the ‘why.’ It involves thinking deeply about who your source is and what story you’re trying to tell, asking insightful questions and, most importantly, creating an environment where your source feels comfortable answering them.
But how do you do that, exactly? As with all interviewing, it takes both practice and patience. The Sports Whisperer himself told Poynter this:
“A lot of times it’s rephrasing a question three, four or five ways. A lot of us have the pat answer or the safe answer or the quick answer, [which is] is the first answer we’ll give. Sometimes it takes that many times of coming back at it in a slightly different way to unlock a little something more.”
Role Model: TV mogul Oprah Winfrey. "If I'm in an interview with somebody and I think that they have said something that they really didn't want to reveal, I'll try to help them out. It's a dance we have here. Earning people's trust is letting them know that I'm not out to get them."
Word to the Wise
Without a respectful, honest approach and a keen sense of how your subject is responding to you, this interview style can quickly go from therapy to prying — and could even wind up offending rather than revealing. It all comes down to being sensitive and creating the right environment. After all, therapists put couches in their offices for a reason.
THE LAW AND ORDER
Have you ever noticed that every interview conducted on a police procedural TV show takes place on the go? The hard-boiled detectives ask the suspects a series of hard-boiled questions while inexplicably walking from some mysterious Point A to an equally mysterious Point B. Apparently, stationary interviews make for boring TV.
I’m not advising you to conduct your interviews via the walk-n’-talk (unless, of course, you have to — and believe me, you might) but rather to pay attention to the way they’re conducted. Detectives on police procedurals like the Law and Order or CSI series are in the business of gathering information, and doing it quickly. So they get straight to the point and ask pointed questions, eschewing rapport building in favor of the fast answer. This accomplishes the twin goals of letting the interviewee know that they’re serious—which could give reluctant sources a critical push—and might even elicit more straightforward answers.
Role Model: Radio personality Howard Stern. “The biggest criticism of my interviews is that I cut people off. I think my biggest asset is that I cut people off. It sounds like a contradiction, but the fact is you can’t allow people to drone on. You are the orchestra leader. You are the one who is saying, ‘My audience wants something new. I’ve got to get out of this. I gotta keep it fresh.’”
Word to the Wise
Keep in mind that this is an extreme style of interviewing that is best used when speaking with a source who either really wants to talk or who really doesn’t. The former is likely to give you what you need no matter what, and the latter might respond well to both your no-nonsense demeanor and the fact that the whole thing will be over soon.
When I was a reporter at The Seattle Times, I shared a cubicle wall with a journalist who covered the burgeoning biotech industry. I used to sit on the other side of that nubby, gray wall and listen to him interview scientist after scientist about the important details of their work. Most of the time, I wouldn’t even understand what he was saying — and not just because I could only hear one side of the phone call. His knowledge of the subject was so deep that he could skip over the getting-a-basic-understanding portion of the program and go straight to the details. In other words, he spoke their language.
This style of interviewing is called The Expert, and is the opposite of The Aw Shucks. While best applied when dealing with technical subjects that involve specialized knowledge, it can be used anywhere where it’s in your interest to have a particular expertise.
Role Model: Financial journalist Michael Lewis. “The financial world has become way too complicated and very secretive. Since when did the stock market become a secret? And the journalists who report are at the mercy of their sources and easily manipulated. Stuff is hard to find out.”
Word to the Wise
Though you may be able to hold your own on a particular subject, never assume that you know everything when employing The Expert. Information may have changed, or you might have gotten it slightly wrong to begin with. If you’re going to rely on a foundation of knowledge to support your interview, it’s critical that you continually check in to make sure that it’s accurate.
We often don’t think about how important active listening is during an interview. Sometimes we’re ruminating on what the source has just said, or anticipating our next question, or wondering when they’re going to stop talking about their golf game and just get back to the point already. But in the Japanese language, there is a specific term for the sounds and phrases listeners make to let the speaker know they’re paying attention. It can be a bit startling to hear Aizuchi in practice for the first time, as the “yes’s” and “Is that so’s” and “Really’s?” come in a steadier stream than most native English speakers are used to.
But take a moment to listen to two best friends talking and you’ll realize that a truly fluid conversation is a two-player game in any language. Verbal prompts keep the speaker going, and are more likely to elicit well-told anecdotes from your source — which makes your job that much easier.
The BFF is an interview style that relies on building a strong rapport with your source and creating an environment where relaying information feels like a pleasure rather than a responsibility. It makes use of enthusiasm and encouragement relayed through facial expressions, body language and, of course, Aizuchi. When used well, it actually allows you to ask fewer questions, and the questions you do ask are less about gathering new information and more about urging the speaker to continue.
Consider this gem of a radio interview between Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Markus Schwabe and a trucker named Penn Powell, who had been attacked not once, not twice, but three times by a tenacious beaver on a lonely bridge. It’s one of those interviews journalists dream about, where just a few well-placed questions inspire the interviewee to deliver a ready-made story on a proverbial platter. In the nearly seven minute interview, Schwabe speaks just a handful of times. This is what he says:
Where were you going? What happened?
Now did you kill it?
Now did you have big boots on to protect your feet?
Holy cow Penn!
So how did you get him off?
So he was biting you?
Did you scream or yell at all?
Well, Penn, how did you get this beaver off of you eventually?
And so you took off I suppose…
How bad were you hurt Penn?
It was pretty serious....
Now Penn, why do you think the beaver did this?
Now could this beaver have been rabid?
But he was stuck on the bridge.....
I guess Penn, you've got a bit of a new respect for the beaver?
And the parts you didn’t hear? Interview gold.
Role Model: TV journalist Katie Couric. “I think the more comfortable you make someone feel, the better interview you’ll ultimately get. In terms of body language, I always try to be very warm and welcoming and I think it’s really critical to put someone at ease.”
Word to the Wise
The BFF is probably the most versatile interview style, and can be used on the widest variety of people. Take caution, however, because when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work. Some sources just won’t be comfortable unless you set the structure for the interview, or their personality is such that they’re not naturally inclined to just go with it. Keep trying to get them to open up in case their reticence is simply a case of shyness, but if you sense your approach is putting them off or making them nervous, it’s best to try another tactic.
Keeping the ‘Person’ in ‘Persona’
Changing your style to complement your source is a great way to create a comfortable environment, and is most likely to yield the information you need. But shifting personas should be a subtle tool rather than a flashy act. People can tell when you’re being disingenuous.
Remember that you’re building a relationship, whether it’s for an hour or the span of a career. By tailoring your approach to each source and meeting them on their terms, you’re showing respect for both them and their story. Journalism is ultimately about connecting people, and whether you’re exposing injustice or the latest in celebrity gossip, every story starts the same: with the person on the other side of your notebook.
Break the News | Great River Technologies | 2013
Break the News is a scenario-based news writing exercise intended to give students lots of practice with simple news writing forms. It grew out of a common assignment that many basic reporting and news writing classes rely on – the fact sheet that students have to sort through to apply the 5Ws and make good decisions about what should be in the story, and what should not. Break the News takes that basic idea and adds dimension and complexity.
For basic writing instruction, our approach in these classes is to have a central set of information that everyone in the class can work from and that the instructor is familiar with. The information is diverse – Break the News uses press releases, government forms, produced video, witness video, audio…generally whatever a working reporter might have access to in working on a deadline story. It’s fictional information that points toward basic story forms and concepts. By controlling for what the information is and using these exercises in a timed classroom setting, the instructor is able to give much richer feedback to students while they’re working and call out common errors that students in the class make. We’ve found that this leads to rich discussions about the fundamentals while they’re still fresh in the students’ minds.
Break the News is scalable in the sense that an instructor can release assets to the students as a whole or in smaller chunks of information. This is intended to build maximum flexibility into the teaching environment. If an instructor really wants to focus on leads and how developing information might change them, these exercises can accommodate that. If an instructor wants to see how a student manages a body of information and develops a whole story, that’s also an option. We built this with an eye toward the iterative digital story – one that starts with a sentence or two, changes, builds and is reworked as more information becomes available.
Break the News also asks students to be observant critical thinkers about news and information that they receive. Ultimately, this is an exercise in making good news decisions and being accurate under pressure. The exercises are designed with many challenging pitfalls: red herrings, questionable sourcing and tricky spellings of critical names and places. The idea is to take students to to a place where they need to be hyper aware of the decisions that they’re making, and hopefully make good ones, in a safe environment.
Overall Learning Objectives:
•Distinguish between opinion and fact
•Apply news values
•Develop a publishing rhythm between day-of stories, updates, follow-ups etc.
•Choose appropriate information for iterative stories
•Learn the 5Ws
•Apply basic lead writing
•Use the inverted pyramid
•Develop clear, correct and concise writing skills
•Hone technical writing proficiency
Additional Resources Include: