Inadequate interviews? Here's how to hone your technique

Have you ever listened in while a colleague interviews someone on the phone? If you have, the chances are you sat there and squirmed – or nearly died laughing.

It’s rare to find a reporter who is capable of conducting a good interview, either by phone, or face to face.

Why? The main reason is lack of training. Most colleges only spend a few hours training journalism students in interviewing skills – even though they are probably the most essential tool of the journalist’s trade.

The NCTJ National Certificate examiners have said on more than one occasion: ‘A good interview technique is the foundation on which all stories are built.”

And the fact that the pass rate in the NCE interview rarely exceeds around 60 per cent speaks for itself.

In recent years, the examiners have highlighted the following faults:

• A superficial and scattergun approach to the interview.

• Too many interruptions

• Poor listening skills

• Lack of interest in victims

I have been the ‘interviewee’in countless NCE mock exams, and have experienced interviews that have ranged from the inadequate to the downright bizarre.

I remember one girl earnestly asking me: ‘Is the lady still dead?’And another guy didn’t even look up from his notebook when I told him my son had just died… he didn’t offer any sympathy, or any comment whatsoever. He just blanked me. Heartless bastard.

You could write a book on how to conduct effective interviews. But here are some tips that will alleviate the most common problems.

Avoid closed questions. Many reporters ask questions that can only be answered with a yes or a no. Then they tell the news editor: ‘He didn’t say much.’Questions that start with ‘is”, ‘have you”, ‘did you”, ‘will you’and so on are usually closed. So it is important to phrase questions so they start with ‘why”, ‘what”, ‘how’and ‘tell me”. These will produce reactions, opinions and good quotes.

Wrong: ‘Is this the first time this has happened to you?”

Right: ‘Tell me about other times this has happened to you.”

Avoid double-barrelled questions – asking two questions in one. They confuse the interviewee, who doesn’t know which question to answer first, or forgets the second one by the time they have answered the first. Either that, or they end up not really answering either. If you listen carefully when TV and radio reporters ask double-barrelled questions, the interviewee invariably only answers the second one and ignores the first.

Wrong: ‘How did you feel, and what are you going to do now?”

Right: ‘How did you feel?”

‘What are you going to do next?”

Research your subject first – there’s nothing worse than not being properly briefed about the issue, or about the person you are interviewing. Maintain eye contact. Don’t interrupt.

And make sure questions maintain a logical sequence – especially if you are asking someone to describe an incident.

Cleland Thom is director of Potential.GB.com, a journalism training organisation

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