Interviewing skills for journalists

An editor of a major weekend magazine recently asked me to run her team through a ‘how-to-interview’ course. She had looked around within the market and was amazed to discover that no such course existed. Despite the fact that interviewing is the second-most important tool in a journalist’s kit (after the ability to string words together into a sentence), universities and other education bodies simply ignore the skill of interviewing, as if it cannot be taught. But of course it can.

Question mark
Twenty years ago I worked my way through senior school and university in the phone room of a market research company and within those grey, carpeted booths I was shown the true meaning and value of skilled, measured interviewing. It’s called ‘probing’, and it’s a mix of intense listening and directed, topical questioning. It’s a skill that’s sadly lacking in the repertoire of many journalists today, who instead prefer to turn up with a set of ten pre-written questions. Once those ten questions are answered then the interview is over, but I was taught that the best interview is the one that doesn’t make it beyond the first prepared question.
Take, for instance, a market research interview about toothpaste. Ask somebody what it is that they like about their toothpaste and they will tell you that it has a nice, minty flavour and it makes their mouth feel fresh. The predictability of this answer means it’s completely useless information, and the journalistic equivalent result would be an incredibly dull story. But the interviewer skilled in probing will, within three or four more questions, potentially have the respondent admitting that she is single, lonely, and relies on the confidence given to her by her toothpaste to go out and meet potential partners – the journalistic equivalent result of a brilliant, exclusive piece.
There is a serious problem when a journalist hasn't been taught how to dig for a great story, how or when to probe or how to read the signs in what the respondent is saying. As a result the film star they’re interviewing tells them he did his own stunts. The CEO they’re interviewing tells them she’s made the difficult but necessary decisions and is now looking forward to a bumper year. And the football player they’re interviewing tells them he’s looking forward to his team doing the best they can and hopefully coming away with a win. Yawn. It’s all completely predictable, and therefore completely useless, information.
Of course, there’s a lot more involved in skilled interviewing, including when to use specific types of questions, body language, use of silence, importance of banter etc, but it can all be taught and most often it’s not. That’s sad for everyone, especially the readers. After all, without great interviewing skills there are no great stories. But if you ask the right questions the story will reveal itself, then all you need to do is write.

Chris Sheedy