Dean Nelson’s Society of Professional Journalists convention panel, “Talking to Strangers: How to Get the Eager, the Reluctant and Even the Haters to Give a Good Interview,” shared insightful tips on how to conduct a successful interview — the single most important aspect of journalism. Even so, getting the perfect interview can be a challenge.
Nelson is a professor and the multimedia director at Port Loma Nazarene University. He is also the author of “Talk to Me: How to Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers, and Interview Anyone Like a Pro,”a how-to guide on ensuring a great interview every time.
First-time interviewers should overprepare for their first interview Nelson advised. “This helps the interviewer ask better questions and allows the interviewee to be more at ease with the questions that you are asking,” he said. “You really want your interviewee to know that you are credible.”
One of the biggest things Nelson wants novices to know is to learn from their mistakes. Over time, Nelson learned how to not get in the way of his sources and ask shorter and concise questions.
“The main focus of the interview is who are you interviewing and what information can get from this person to tell a story. Appealing to the self interest of your interviewee is an important factor to help convey a message to send to listeners,” said Nelson. “It helps build an expertise on your interviewee to engage audiences on the particular topic.”
Learning how to get the best out of your interview takes time, preparation and skill. Below are Nelson’s tips for effective interviewing
- Have the ability to talk
“You need to have the ability to talk,” Nelson said. Having a human touch is the lifeblood of the story.
Know who you should be talking to. Nelson refers to them as the “three E’s.” Talk to an expert, such as local officials, a doctor, someone from Congress, etc. Get an eyewitness to tell you what they felt at the moment. And have an explainer for context and nuance.
“The best interviewers are the ones who are the most authentic,” said Nelson. “Be yourself!”
- Always be prepared
Preparation is key. You should always do your research beforehand and you should know the answers to your own questions. With preparation, planning what questions to ask is also critical. Some reporters write their questions down, while others write down topics or trust their instinct.
Once it’s time for the interview, where it happens matters. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Nelson said, “At the kitchen table or outside can be one of the best settings for an interview. If your interview is taking place while riding a car, make the interview golden.”
- Look ready and be ready to improvise
Dress appropriately and look the part. If you want to be taken seriously, look like a pro. When talking to them use your whole body by leaning, raising your eyebrows or nodding. Always have some open-ended questions like “How?” and “Why?”
- Be sure to:
Always have control of your own interview; never let interviewees turn the interview around toward you. During the interview, take your time writing down notes. Your interviewee wants you to get it right. At the end of every interview remember to ask these three important questions:
- Would you spell your name for me?
- Is there anything I should have asked, but didn’t?
- Who else should I talk to about this?
- Can I contact you if I have more questions?