It’s all about the question: 8 interview tips guaranteed to yield good tape

After days of trying, you finally manage to snag an interview with the perfect person for your story.  You show up, you talk to her for 20 minutes, you come back and start listening to the tape, and … wait, this is really boring.  Your tape is full of the perfect interview subject giving short, predictable answers full of facts, figures, and talking points.

Too often, we get so focused on landing the right interview that we forget to prepare for it.  Consequently, we ask bad questions, and then of course, we get bad tape.

With a little preparation and these 8 tips, and you’ll have a much better chance of getting compelling tape that will make your story sing.

1. Don’t ask things you should already know

Asking about facts and figures that are readily available is a waste of time, plus it yields boring tape.  Remember, a recorded interview is not a substitute for basic research.

WRONG: Jeff Bezos, thanks so much for giving me a few minutes of your time today.  First of all, tell me, how many people work for

2. Ask one question at a time

If you ask two questions at once, your subject will answer only the one s/he wants to answer:

Reporter: Senator Smith, is it true that you spent taxpayer money on a flight to France with your wife? And also, remind me how many years you two have been married?

Senator: Beth and I have been married for 32 happy years, and I think you’ll agree that’s the kind of traditional marriage you don’t see enough of these days, and that’s what I’m fighting to protect, and that’s why I know the people of this great state will re-elect me in November.  Sorry, that’s all the time I have, gotta run!

3. Hold the interviewee accountable

  • You made two conflicting statements at two different times – what’s true?
  • What are you going to do to to fix the problem at hand?
  • What evidence do you have that your idea/ initiative/ project will really work?
  • How much will your plan cost and where’s the money coming from?

4. Be the Devil’s advocate

How do you respond to the argument (state the argument) of people who:

  • disagree with you?
  • don’t like you?
  • will be harmed by your project or idea?
  • want you out of office?

5. Be the Layperson’s advocate.

  • How would you explain this over drinks or coffee to your friend who’s not a political junky/ engineer/ arts patron/ neuroscientist like you are?
  • Why should that friend care?

6. Ask for descriptions

  • What did it look/ sound/ smell like?
  • Was it hot or cold?

7. Embrace the touchy-feely

I used to cover space shuttle launches at Kennedy Space Center.  At NASA’s post-launch press briefings, most of the time was taken up with space journalists showing off for each other by asking questions about obscure technical systems and parts.  But somebody – usually a foreign journalist – would always ask:

“How did you feel when you saw the shuttle lift off today?”  

That prompted plenty of eye rolling and muttering around the press room, but guess which soundbite was on every broadcast that evening.

Never be afraid to ask “how did you feel?”

8. Follow up

Know your topic well enough to know if your interviewee is dodging your question or making a spurious argument, and don’t let him get away with it.

If your interviewee is not explaining something clearly, keep asking questions until you get clarity.  If you don’t understand what she’s saying, your listener certainly won’t.

If your interviewee says something really interesting but doesn’t finish his thought, encourage him to continue (“and then what happened?”).

It’s all in the planning

All of these tips require research and planning.  You can’t go into an interview cold and expect to get sparkling tape.  But as with most things – in journalism and in life – the time you spend planning will save you time and yield better results in the end.

It’s all about the question: 8 interview tips guaranteed to yield good tape

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