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Mar 18 / King Kaufman

Interviewing tips, from calming nerves to getting good answers, from a host of veteran journos

It’s not exactly Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Interviewing But Were Afraid to Ask*, but this week Steve Buttry’s blog has offered enough interviewing advice from enough smart people that if you sit down with it, you’ll be feeling like you could tell Studs Terkel a thing or two. Or at least Roy Firestone.

Buttry collected the responses from “more than two dozen veteran journalists” to a question asked by a student:

The conversation started this week in a private Facebook group, where a journalism professor sought aid from some former colleagues, asking for advice on helping a student who “is really struggling when he has to interview people in his intro to reporting class. He gets very nervous and just can’t do it.”

There are way too many answers to get into them here, but, as Buttry notes, there’s a lot of overlap in the answers. I agree with him that this is more reinforcement than repetition. People keep saying these things for a reason. Among them:

  • If you’re nervous, pretend you’re not. Act. Your subject can’t tell the difference between someone who isn’t nervous and someone who’s just acting not-nervous. Either way, the subject will be put at ease if you’re calm.
  • Use notes. Have a list of questions ready, if possible, and be very ready to stray from them. I do this.
  • Try to make it a conversation. You’re likely to get better answers if it feels more like talking and less like getting the third degree.
  • Listen. Don’t be so focused on your next question that you miss what your subject is saying—which may lead you to a better next question.
  • Practice. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, the more at ease you’ll be, and soon enough you’ll be the one giving advice to nervous newcomers.

Toward the end of the piece, Buttry quotes tweets by New York University professor and media critic Jay Rosen and St. Paul Pioneer Press editor Hal Davis suggesting that getting something wrong in your question will get your subject to open up. “Wanna get someone to talk?” Rosen writes. “Tell them you think you know what they’d say and paraphrase their view. They’ll correct you.”

You can decide for yourself whether you want to be wrong deliberately as a strategy, but I think the real point is not to be afraid to make an assertion that might be wrong, and beyond that, not to be afraid to admit when you don’t understand something. Assuming you’ve done your homework and prepared for the interview, there’s a good chance that if you don’t understand something, most readers or listeners won’t either. That means you want your subject to explain it.

If your subject explains it while thinking, “I can’t believe this person doesn’t understand this,” so what? Better to learn something while being thought a fool than to remain a fool.

There are links a-go-go at the end of Buttry’s post to earlier posts with interviewing tips, and to more resources to help with interviewing skills.

And don’t miss this follow-up post, ‘Uh-huh’: Does it ruin audio, or keep a source talking? (Maybe both), which interested me in my role as a radio interviewer.

* See what I did there?