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Further lessons on how to conduct interviews are included in the travel journalism courses of MatadorU.

LIKE ANY creative profession, travel journalism forces you to use your perception to reinterpret the world around you. You try to engage an audience with ideas and issues — you create something meaningful from all the incoherent information and noise out there.

The finished product may be a piece of writing that you craft, but the material a result of the interviews you conduct.

But here’s the catch: Good journalism is dependent on a total stranger’s cooperation and participation. At the heart of this issue is the interview. The finished product may be a piece of writing that you craft, but the material is a result of the interviews you conduct.

And while sources vary — some people know exactly what they want to say while others love to make you sweat for a basic quote — how you conduct the interview has more to do with the outcome than anything.

It’s odd that so much emphasis is put on teaching journalists how to write an article when that skill is useless without also teaching journalists how to develop strong interview techniques.

In an effort to help other aspiring reporters develop this crucial skill, I brought together some of my colleagues and journalist friends to ask them what interview tips they think are most helpful.

1. Find a good location.

Avoid Starbucks! It’s often easiest to suggest a centrally located corporate coffeeshop, but if there is any way you can interview in a place that has some relevance to the story or your subject, you’ll have much greater success. Not only because you’ll gain a further sense of context, but people are often more comfortable (and open) when they’re in a familiar place or what feels like “their territory.”

Ask to meet at your subject’s house, work, or the location of an incident relevant to the story. Even meeting at the interviewee’s favorite restaurant is more interesting than a Starbucks.

2. Prepare your goals ahead of time.

Know what questions you’re going to ask and why you’re going to ask them. Heading to an interview with a sense of what you want to get out of it (a colorful re-enactment of an event, an on-the-record opinion on the issue you’re covering, general background, etc.) is critical to conducting a successful interview.

You should already be thinking about what you want your piece to look like and what you need from this interview to get your article closer to that end result.

3. Write down your questions.

Be sure and bring prepared questions with you. I usually go into an interview with twice as many questions as I expect to ask. The security of knowing I’m not going to get stuck helps my confidence, and you never know what question will get you the information you’re really looking for.

4. Work on your flow.

This is probably the most challenging but also the most important interview skill you can develop. You want to strike a balance between a conversation (which helps make your subject feel comfortable and aids candor) and getting the job done. As your subject is answering your question, be thinking about what you’ll ask next and why.

The flow of questions needs to seem natural and conversational — don’t spin your subject off on a completely different topic just because that’s the next question on your list. Think about segues and transitions. This way your subject doesn’t feel forced to give you soundbites and may open up a little (particularly important for anyone working on an audio piece where you may need blocks of the raw interview).

5. Think about the medium.

Interviewing techniques definitely vary for different mediums. If you’re interviewing for audio or video, you want to ask two-part questions, which encourages subjects to talk for longer blocks of time.

Conversely, when you’re interviewing for print, try and break questions up so you can get shorter and more concise answers (easier for taking notes and for quoting later). You can be more conversational with interviews for print — you can say “yeah,” and “uh-huh,” etc. Not doing this is one of the biggest challenges when you’re interviewing for audio. Nodding and smiling accomplishes the same sort of conversational encouragement and keeps your tape clean.

Another great trick for audio interviews is to have your subject re-enact the story. It makes for good sound and helps you avoid having too much of your own narration later on.

6. Bring a buddy.

I find having a second person as a notetaker and extra set of ears can be very useful. If you don’t think another person will overwhelm or distract your subject (I find that pretty rare), it can be a lifesaver to have that second set of notes to check your quotes and information.

7. Avoid obsessing.

While good notes and recording are very important, you can do yourself a disservice by obsessing about recording every little detail of what your subject says. As you’re interviewing, you should be able to discern the gems from the chatter — focus on the quotes and info you know you’re going to use and make sure you get that right!

8. Be a little annoying.

Don’t be afraid to relentlessly revisit a question or topic that you feel hasn’t been properly addressed by the interviewee. Sometimes people need time to warm up to you or a topic, or will respond better if your question is worded differently. Keep trying.

9. Be a little sneaky.

Continue taking notes even after the interview is officially over. Sometimes people say the most revealing or intimate things when they feel they’re out of the “hot seat.” If they don’t say “off the record,” it’s all game.

10. Empower your subject.

A great question to ask if you don’t fully understand the perspective of your interviewee is, “What is your ideal solution/resolution?” Obviously this only works in certain circumstances, but when appropriate it can help clarify a person’s point of view or opinion.

11. Work them up.

Another great question is, “Why do you care about this issue?” This can be an effective way to get a strong and emotional quote about why the topic you’re covering is so important.

You can also ask for the turning point in a story, the moment when everything changed or catalyzed. This can help you shape the narrative of your story as well.

12. Endure awkward silences.

I know this is totally counterintuitive. My instinct is to keep chattering and asking questions to keep people feeling comfortable, but sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with sensitive subjects, you need to shut up and wait.

Ask your question, let them give you the rehearsed and generic answer, then sit there quietly and see what comes next. You’d be amazed how often this technique yields powerful results.

13. Ask for what you need.

Seriously, sometimes interviewees are frustrating not because they’re trying to bust your chops, but because they just don’t understand what you want from them. I find that many interview subjects get a kick out of having you “pull back the curtain” a little and tell them about your process.

You can say, “Listen, I really need a quote from you encapsulating your feelings on this issue,” or, “I really need you to walk me through the chronology of this,” or even, “I really need you to take me to a location that is relevant to this issue so I can set a scene.”

For the most part people want to be helpful, and you just need to tell them how they can.

* The MatadorU Travel Writing program can help you build the skills you need to become a travel writer.

Travel Writing Tips


About The Author

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville writes for The Common Language Project - dedicated to developing and implementing innovative approaches to international journalism by focusing on positive, inclusive and humane reporting of stories ignored by the mainstream media.

  • degan

    this is great, thank you! i discovered this site last week and have been loving everything on it since. it will all be very helpful for my upcoming trip to south america.

  • ianmack

    Glad you’re finding such useful material here at Brave New Traveler!

  • Jack

    Great article, I’ve picked up a couple of tips from this: esp. number 7 about trying to not let the notebook rule the interview.

  • JennDZ

    Wow Sarah, your articles are just so helpful for me as a budding writer. I did a big project out in the American Southwest several years ago and I always had the hardest time with interviews, because I did not want people to feel “put on the spot” but that is exactly what an interview is, and I guess I have a hard time being the one to ask the questions, especially when it is a heated topic. You don’t want people to feel like you are prying. Any suggestions for putting people at ease—-including yourself??!!

  • jv

    Those a pretty good tips! I especially like (and agree with) the tip regarding awkward silences. Classic interregator’s technique. If you can train yourself not to feel awkward, then the interviewee will be the only one … and the tendency is for an uncomfortable person to fill that silence.

    One tip I’d add: It helps to phrase certain questions in an open-ended way. “Tell me about …”, “How did you feel …”, “What do you think about”. You can always narrow things down in your follow-ups if you need more specific info, but open-ended Qs work well to get things rolling.

  • Derek C. Wallace

    Excellent tips, as always, Sarah!

    One article I’d be very curious to see from you (and maybe you’ve already done this one, if so, forgive me and link away!) is the role of objectivity in journalism and how you balance that out with your personal desire to report on issues that mainstream media doesn’t cover (which in itself reveals a bias). Can reporters ever truly be “neutral”? Or is everything we write a reflection of our biases and, hence, propaganda?

    Ian, I’d love to conduct that interview with Sarah! One independent journalist to another! :)

    • Harry

      The way to keep your thoughts out of the interview is to keep them out of the questions. You do this by keping descriptive words out of the questions. You ask “what did you think of the accident” and not “what did you think of the ++++++ accident’? If you want a bad example, watch Sean Hanity, he spends 2 minutes giving his opinion in a question and then lets you answer in one minute. I have done an interview for hours and never gave my opinion. My opinions were not in the written report of the interview as I did not put them in the interview questions.

  • Becka

    Great!! This will be perfect for my staff! Thanks :)

  • Pingback: » 5 Useful Resources for Writing Travel Articles

  • Chris

    This article is really informative and helpful, thanks!! I love to write, but I am definitely a little intimidated by the interview and unsure how to go about it at times. This is a very good outline. Thanks!

  • Nick Rowlands

    Fantastic article!

    One tip someone told me is that if you haven’t got what you need from the interview, if there’s one killer question that you haven’t quite been able to work in, or get a decent answer to, then pack up and leave. On your way out, ever so casually, ask your question. Make it sound like you almost forgot it – “Oh, by the way …” or “Out of interest …” are quite good openers for this. You may find your subject opens up so much that you have to sit down and do the whole interview again!

  • Joshua M Rosenau

    Great article.

    The other day I found myself in an impromptu interview with a D.A., and I bombed it because I hadn’t codified the questions in my head.

    Normally, I am smart enough to get around to the necessary questions after a little conversation, but the D.A. was not only busy, but also fairly adept at delivering brief, incisive answers that are intentionally dull.

    Had I followed the steps recommended here, I am sure it would have gone much better.

    Thanks for writing such a useful post.

  • Kruger Siankulu

    Everything i have ready are practically helpful.

  • AJ

    I especially like the tip on not going to the local Starbucks. I write for my college paper and needed tips on interviewing a school fraternity leader. Thanks!

  • Yana

    I just want to say thank you. This was a very very helpful article.

  • Maggie

    Thanks for the great, insightful article! I don’t have any official journalism training, but I do volunteer writing for a local street paper. I certainly have made the mistake of interviewing at Starbucks, and I could barely hear what my interviewees were saying over the din of the coffee-making!

    It’s good to know that it’s ok to be more direct in asking for a specific item, too.

  • johanna

    very useful material for my newspaper class

  • K

    This is GREAT!

    Many thanks :)

  • K

    Many thanks :)

  • Pingback: Interviews, Part 1 | Mr. Olivo's Classroom Blog

  • Harry

    as to #4, I believe it is better to listen to the subject’s answer than to be thinking of my next question, because my next question very well may come from the last answer the subject gave. I write down the topics I want to cover and then I question you all day long if need be.

  • worddancer

    Great tips! Thanks!

  • Joe Bunting

    Good post! I love what you said about picking a location that is NOT starbucks. I made this mistake early on, and by the time I started meeting people in their offices or another location important to them, I was blown away by the improvement.

  • Reporter?

    Thank you so much for this article!  It really helps a novice like me get her bearings on the art of interviewing!

  • Maegan E

    Thanks! This is a great piece and obviously stands the test of time!  I’m new to the interviewing scene and wanted to be able read more about technical aspects – so thank you for the tips!

  • Mix

    This is really useful, thank you.

    • Jhttcjhttc

      This is well thought out,  well writtenm  and to the point.  Thanks for condensing a journalism course on interviewing in 13 powerful tips. 

  • sheishimi

    Thank you. I will share this with my students.

  • Theflemingreport

    I’m just staring out and your tips are very helpful and the next time I have to interview I will be better prepared.

  • Smileyjen101

    I’m with Harry here, if you’re not a fully attentive listener you are going to miss the gems and your interviewee will pick up on the disrespect of it.

    Your body language and responses to what they have said will give you away.

    When you are in conversation with anyone, personal or professional listening is a sign of respect. I would suggest instead listen with all of your body – from this you will build genuine trust and rapport.

    You will also learn more because you are ‘getting yourself out of the way’ and letting the speaker speak, you will be able to have and show a genuine interest in their point of view (and no you don’t have to agree with their pov – again, it’s not about you).

    Balancing between the chat and getting the job done should mean being there fully for all of it. Your next question/s can wait their turn. As you said in another one a bit of silence doesn’t hurt the process, you may also find once you’ve really listened to one answer that the ‘take’ of the next can build on things already said.

    There’s another goof that it will save you, the one where you ask your ‘next question’ and both of you realise they have already answered it. ; )

  • Veny

    I am about to conduct my first ever interview for a magazine article (yes, I am a newbie in this field of writing), and frankly I am a little nervous. Ideally, I just wanted to sit there and listen to the person stories, as if I was chatting, but bearing in mind I have a job to be done. Reading this reconfirmed  what I thought I should be doing, and more. Thank you for very practical tips, and I really like the last one. Initially, I thought telling the person what I am doing and how will make me looks amateurish, but you’re right, for most part people want to be helpful and they will be if they know what I am after. Cheers!

  • POINGjam

    I just got my first assignment as an entertainment reviewer.  I’ve done news interviews before, but they were all pre-booked, I never had to approach someone spontaneously.  Is there a good way of approaching a potential subject?  I was thinking just “Hi, I’m me with this website, do you have time for a couple of questions?”  Is that okay?

  • Charlotte

    thanks very helpful :) 

  • Rose Macaskie

    Smileyjen101 says just listen when you interveiw people. That is great way of getting to know people, if you have plenty of time on your hands and it is worth giving up time to knowing people it is even a duty to really know them but just listening to people does not work when it comes to asking questions about things they don’t want to talk about then it stops being a important technique, and it is incredible how many things people don’t want to give true opinions on. Being confrontational tells you things if only because you find out what the other wont say, like they wont say, “I agree with you”, so you at least know that they don’t, at all, agree with you though they wont give you proof positive of this by afirming it and you also then know they wil not tell you things straight so it helps you to know were you are with them.

    Talking about this sort of thing is important for non journalists, people are often so close even with their nearest and dearest that most people just live in a social world they cant understand at all, me for instance.

    My father once did the trick of asking me a question as I went through the gates at the airport and got information out of me about a sister of mine that I think, especially I think now I know him better, that I should not have told him, he over reacts and reacts unfairly, I have some reason even to think that if you say such and such may possibly have happened, as I did on another occasion he decides it means you know it has. It hurts to think of it. rose macaskie madrid.

  • Donna Duric

    Show interest in your interview subject! Act like the person is a friend, acquaintance or colleague (when appropriate), and show your complete and 100 per cent undivided attention and interest in what he or she is saying. Make the person feel like the most important person in the world. If the topic is something you’re knowledgeable about or had a personal experience with, share a quick vignette about your experience so the interviewee connects with you and feels a kinship with you. They’ll be much more likely to say more meaningful things and give you more information if you practice that last bit of advice. And make your facial expressions match that of the interviewee. Serious when they’re serious, smile when they smile, show sadness, concern or worry (only if you really mean it) if you’re interviewing someone about something terribly sad or tragic. Most journalists have real compassion and won’t have trouble empathizing with the mood of the interviewee. Also, if you’re interviewing a tight-ass who doesn’t want to open up to you or smile, try to be lighthearted and humourous to get them to lighten up, too. You have to have incredible interpersonal skills to be a good reporter.

  • Amber M Brown

    Wow. I have been online researching various interviewing techniques…. I have so much growing to do in this industry and I am so happy to run across articles such as this one, that are not only informative but down to EARTH! It really it home when you opened with “Journalism is a creative job”, I found myself recently defending my decision to transfer my talents into the media realm from the fine arts. Isn’t the idea behind all forms of art communication? Tomorrow I am interviewing my mother and I have had the darndest time trying to figure out my “approach” to the subject of single parenthood, I know I want a positive uplifting article but how does one talk to his/her mom about such an intimate subject? I cannot be detached but I cannot make the interview about my perspective, especially when I specifically am seeking out her views. Point #12 you said to “endure awkward silences” and # 13 “ask for what you need”, I feel as if I followed those points and allow her to take the lead I can get some really amazing intimate details from her rather than simply putting her on the spot with seemingly invasive questions! Thank you for the post, you definitely knocked some of the butterflies out of my stomach!

  • Jah-Afiyalove Moonrise

    Very helpful!

  • Janine de Boer

    Really good! Thanks a lot!

  • Anonymous

    my friend’s mom makes $66/hour on the laptop. She has been fired for nine months but last month her income was $18920 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Here’s the site to read more FAB33.COM.

  • Jackie

    This was very helpful! Thanks for all the great tips!

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