The Rapidian

Citizen journalists learn key interviewing skills through doing

We who report for The Rapidian may start out intimidated about interviewing. I interviewed fellow reporters Allison Arnold, Steven Davison and Jennifer Voss to compare notes on how to successfully interview our subjects.

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Many of us who write stories for The Rapidian begin unsure of the best ways to interview subjects. We want our articles to be accurate and honorable. I interviewed fellow reporters Allison ArnoldSteven Davison and Jennifer Voss to compare notes on our best interviewing practices to write articles people can respect and appreciate.

Why strangers will talk to you

“Just relax, have a conversation, and make it fun,” Arnold says, reminding us that interviewees are often more nervous than reporters themselves.

In my experience, people are happy to share their stories. Everyone feels special when someone listens attentively to their heart and experiences.

Have a conversation

All the reporters interviewed independently agreed that interviewing is all about having a conversation.

“The most important piece to a successful interview is really listening to your subject,” says Arnold. “As journalists, most of us like to be the ones speaking, but listening is just as important as being the voice behind the words.”

Voss, a recent intern at The Rapidian, explains that we must realize there is more to interviewing than fact gathering.

“It doesn't matter if they are older, younger, more or less wealthy, successful, outgoing, confident or differ from you in any other way, they have intrinsic value,” Voss says. “Ask them questions that allow them to open up and share their reasons and motivation behind what they are doing - that's where you will find their real story.”

Giving your full attention also means limiting distracting note taking while capturing quotes.

Silent note taking values your subject

Avoid that awkward silence of trying to remember your next question with a ready list of interview questions. This list also impresses your source and shows you have done your homework. All the reporters in this article use guide questions to smooth the interview.

“Make eye contact!” Voss advises. “No one feels comfortable talking to someone staring at a notepad while they are trying to tell them about something really important to them. Record the interview and take small notes as reminders, but spend most of the time having a conversation.”

Prepare your questions

“I research the subject a bit,” says Steven Davison, awarded The Rapidian’s reporter of the fourth quarter 2012. “If the interviewee has a website or is involved in a particular organization, I try to learn as much about it before hand.”

Ask three or four questions about the heart of your story which can’t be found online. Spend 15 to 20 minutes in the interview, perhaps 30 minutes at the most. This respect’s your subject’s time and makes it easier to sift through recordings later.

Recorder or Notepad?

A notebook is indispensable, but it is also limited. How quickly can you write a quote and listen to the source’s next sentence? What if you need a quote later you didn't write? A quality recorder can get you the quotes you really need.

On the other hand, I don’t like to rely on a recorder. Batteries die. Technology can fail. The subject slurs or whispers your best quote. I prevent disaster by keeping a good old fashioned notebook and a gel pen- I think it writes faster- and I use the same notebook to keep things organized.

Voss and I use a recorder and take small notes. Davison captures quotes on paper as they come. Arnold has developed her own shorthand. Afterward she fills out the specifics while still fresh.

Whichever method you choose, be sure to quote accurately while concentrating on your subject.

Come with an open perspective

Voss advises considering your and your readers’ preconceived ideas about the subject. She recommended looking for the truth about the subject or organization to get proper perspective.

Get better info by giving lead time

Arnold suggested contacting multiple sources to boost your article’s credibility and to make sure you still have the information you need even if not everyone responds.

It's important to contact sources before the interview. When I was just starting out, for example, I found an artist setting up a brilliant piece for ArtPrize.

“What perfect timing!” I thought.

I pushed to get an interview on the spot. I got the interview, but not the information. The source found me to be a distraction, rather than means to better publicity. Give your source some lead time. This also allows this person to gather any valuable resources for your article.

When you need the interview quickly

Sometimes articles are time sensitive.

In these cases, Davison sends emails and Arnold calls directly. I records phone calls. However, all agree that face-to-face interviews are preferable. This way, you can keep quotes in context by observing your subject’s face, body, appearance and tone of voice. In-person interviews are also more interactive.

Dress for respect

If the interview is in person, dress semi-professional- whatever you would expect of a reporter. I once went to an interview wearing a cap like an artist. I couldn't’t get the source to take me seriously. Look the part; get respect.

Gratitude can get your article read

Thank your subjects for their time at the end of the interview and via email. Send them a link to the finished article. Not only will your subject appreciate this, they will share your link and you will receive greater readership.

These are some tips we have gleaned along the way. What about you? Comment with your ideas or experiences below.

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