You can be a great writer, but if your interview subject doesn’t open up to you, then you don’t end up with a decent article. You need material - and here are a few Macleay tips on how to get it…
When you set out to profile someone, then ultimately your finished piece is going to be a combination of style and content. The style will come from you; your skill and experience at writing. Techniques learned, borrowed or created by yourself. It’s the package you put around your interview, and it will come entirely from you sat in front of a screen. Total control.
The content though will come from what your interview subject has said. What they have told you in your (usually) short time together. You need to make sure that they’ve said plenty of interesting and relevant things, so that there is plenty to work with. And that’s a little harder to control.
So how do you get them to talk?
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Well along with open-ended questions like that, you need make them feel immediately comfortable. Find somewhere quiet and relaxed. If it can’t be in their own home, then find the next best thing; perhaps a nearby place that they hopefully recommend. You don’t want too much noise or too many interruptions. You also don’t want your subject to feel overheard and inhibited. You want to build a feeling of intimacy and trust.
Having said that, the right cafe or restaurant can work for you even if there are people around. Natural pauses like a waiter coming, can give you that chance to check your questions, take a breath and decide what to focus on next, based on where things have gone so far. Natural breaks are okay, as long as they don’t ruin your rhythm and there aren’t too many.
Macleay students Fatima and Helena hard at work covering the recent federal election for The Junction, which hosted a live broadcast involving 23 journalism schools across the country.
Help your subject relax straight away by taking the lead; Do they need a drink? Are they happy sitting there? Is it okay if I record this? Act confidently and relaxed even if you’re not. If you’re awkward and nervous then they will be too. But equally, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and share something about yourself if it helps break the ice.
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Probably most importantly of all: be prepared. Have an idea of what you want to achieve in the article and how you’re going to get there. It could go off at a tangent, but generally there’s a reason you’re speaking to the person. You should know roughly what you want from the piece way before you sit down with them.
Research before hand to achieve this. Be knowledgeable about the person, not naive. It’s insulting for someone to give you their time and then you not be aware of basic facts about them that are well known. It will dilute any trust and intimacy.
And it may sound patronising, but do some quick research on where you’re meeting, how to get there and where to park. Don’t stuff things up by arriving late and getting yourself in an anxious state. Or worse still missing the interview altogether. It sounds obvious, but I for one have learnt from my mistakes in this respect…
In the Macleay Newsroom, Cisco Corea directs Hatch Macleay student show #LeadingLines. Presented by Journalism star Laura, this special investigation will cover the impact of social media.
Have your questions written down as brief prompts. Reading long questions will slow you down and make it feel stilted and unnatural. In an idea world it’s a conversation, not an interview - that’s the feeling you want to create. Broad topics, rather than long and specific questions.
Hitting them with your knowledge will help them open up, so if you are going to start specific rather than broad, then make it impressive - something technical they’ve never been asked.
And hard though it is, try to think about what you’ll ask next as you’re getting answers. Keep the flow going.
But be comfortable with silence and pauses. Don’t wrap up and move on to your next question too quickly. Allow them space. They may expand on answers. It’s about them, not you. Uncomfortable as it might seem, get used to long pauses and wait for them to fill that space.
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A recording device allows you more flexibility in this respect and allows you to concentrate on the overall interview. Writing answers isn’t terrible though. It sometimes helps you focus on the most important aspects as you’re talking.
Feel free to ask for more detail if you don’t understand anything - it empowers the interviewee if they think they’re teaching you something they’ll keep talking. They know their subject matter and are most comfortable when talking about it.
Let them be passionate. If they get enthusiastic about something then let them go with it. It will be the best material. If they’re excited or angry and want to talk about something then you’ll get great quotes.
When emotion overrides intellect the best material occurs.
Student Layton Holley conducts interviews as Cisco Corea shoots #LeadingLines.
I know it’s another thing that sounds obvious, but be a good listener and an empathetic human being. Think of a television interviewer like Michael Parkinson (check out YouTube if he’s before your time); in many ways you didn’t realise he was even interviewing at times, he created space for somebody to tell their story. Guiding them and prompting them rather than interrogating. Andrew Denton is slightly more forceful and a bit cheekier, pushes people a little bit, but still feels a trusted listener.
Also be a good observer. How do they talk, look, move, interact with others? What do they order, what are they wearing, how is their body language? If you’re at their home then take in as much as possible. Use all of this to create a mood and narrative to go with the quotes and dialogue. It all helps build a picture for the reader.
And finally, it may sound condescending, but you need to practice; and you need some bad interviews to help you become better. There is nothing better as a learning experience, than transcribing what you think is a reasonable interview, only to find it’s pretty hollow and shallow, and lacks real information or decent quotes. Writing up some bad interviews helps you to work out how to get what you want next time.
Just don’t do it too many times…
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