Interviews are times to listen — mostly

A big part of being a journalist is conducting interviews.  Being a copywriter involves meetings, which are similar in some respects to interviews.  For both situations, listening is vital.

A stereotypical writer is a person who is quiet and shy.  Notice I the use of the word “stereotypical” in that last sentence.  Not all writers are quiet and shy.  I acknowledge that.  Personally, I do tend to fall into that quiet category and am more of an introvert.

Regardless of your natural tendencies, it’s important to know when to listen and when to speak during an interview.  A good rule of thumb is to listen 90 percent of the time.  Here are some tips for good listening:

  1. Give nonverbal and subtle verbal cues to show you’re listening.  Whether I’m on the phone or in person, I do this.  It can be a nod of the head, an “uh-huh” or just looking the person in the eye.  While taking notes during an interview is important, it’s just as important to keep conversation cues in place to encourage the person to keep talking and feel comfortable to do so.
  2. Ask follow-up questions when appropriate.  While listening is vital, so is asking follow-up questions when relevant.  Think about talking with a friend who is telling you a story.  Throughout their story, you ask a question here and there to clarify things or keep the story going.  Even just questions like “What did you do?” or “What were you thinking?” can show the person you’re listening and really do care what they’re saying.
  3. Don’t get overly absorbed in your notes. A good way to turn someone off is to keep your head bent into your notebook throughout the entire interview.  I like phone interviews because I can type faster to keep pace.  However, for in-person interviews or important, complex interviews, I record the interview as well so I don’t have to take as many notes and be distracted from really listening.  Never rely solely on a recorder since technical errors occur, but it’s a great backup plan.  I sometimes even make notes of the time on the recording where a good quote is that I don’t have time to write down.  However, don’t make a big fuss with the recorder.  Ask the source if it’s OK for you to record (common courtesy), then sit it down near them and leave it be.
  4. Don’t be afraid of silence. I don’t want this to come across as being smarmy, but when silence happens, people want to fill it.  Sometimes I get the best information from my sources just by staying silent for a moment when they’re finished talking.  I’m not trying to trick them.  The kind of writing I do isn’t investigative anyway, but they feel the need to fill silence and sometimes expand more on a topic and I get great information.

Talking can actually sometimes be vital to a good interview as well.  It makes up that other 10 percent of the time.  Sometimes you need to make small talk with someone at the start of an interview to get them to relax.  Aside from asking your questions, other times for talking come up during interviews.  Here are some examples:

  1. You have something in common with your source. Not just that you both like the color red, but something in common relating to the article.  When I was in college I did a series of articles on children of Vietnam veterans with PTSD.  They were wary to speak with me thinking I might unfairly characterize their parent.  Most times I would explain that I was in their same situation and understood where they were coming from.  Just a sentence or two was enough.  I didn’t need to recount every detail of my experiences for them to get it.
  2. Your source gets off track. Chitchat can be good to put a source at ease in some situations, but the bottom line is some people just really like to talk.  You know what kind of information you need, so don’t be afraid to nicely bring the conversation back around to the topic at hand.  You can ask a question to get back on track.  Or if you caused the veer off topic, you can say something like “I got a bit distracted there.  Anyway, back to what we were talking about.”  Something like that to get them back on track.

I suppose to sum it up, the best way to know when to talk and when to listen during an interview is to remember that you are there to hear the other person’s story.  You are not there to share your own.  The focus is on the interviewee and should remain there at least 99 percent of the time.

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