Listen up: some tips on interviewing

Image courtesy of Dadagueiros

Interview I

This week at City we had a chat with Sunday Times interviewer Camilla Long. Interesting as she was in my humble opinion dear reader, it wasn’t the most enlightening of discussions with the British Press Awards interviewer of the year. We heard about how certain celebrities had ‘definitely had a facelift’ but not how Ms Long went about interviewing them. And so that leads me nicely on to my own offerings for some practical advice based on my own interviewing experiences, which although not as lengthy as my mate Camilla still provides some good examples of the pitfalls and problems of this tricky business.


Yes, have questions ready but be ready to be flexible. Yes have two dictaphones. Yes have loads of pens, but the kind of preparation I am talking about is being prepared for people. You have to be prepared for people. It sounds daft but what I mean is you can have questions ready and be keen to listen but if the other person isn’t giving you what you want – or anything at all – you have to be ready so that you can get something from the interview. Whilst on work experience I rang an amateur golfer for comments on his recent success and participation in an upcoming tournament. After several broad, inviting but perhaps slightly long-winded questions I was left with these quotes…

“Yeah, really pleased yeah.”

“Yeah, well excited yeah.”

“Oh yeah, well excited.”

My questions and the lengthy silence which followed his answers meant I got no quotes of value for the story and put the phone down slightly confused and dumbfounded. A stream of short, sharp questions, perhaps repeated would have worked a lot better.

David Gill

David Gill - We're not friends

They don’t like you.

The one point from Camilla Long’s chat that I did relate to was her comment that ‘they [the interviewee] won’t be your friend’ and this is something to remember both before and during an interview. I spoke to Manchester United Chief Executive David Gill for the University paper and became far too embroiled in the idea of getting him to like me that I allowed him to talk about issues I didn’t care about and weren’t useful for the interview. It is also important not to get drawn in to liking someone during an interview. I was recently conducting an interview for my patch file and got distracted from my task of asking some tricky questions about the local area and it’s problems because the interview became sidetracked in a chat about sport. Remember why you’re doing an interview; to get quotes and/or a story, not to get a new friend.

Be confident

This links in to the last point but is easier said than done.  There is no point turning up to an interview fearing the worst or having any kind of negative attitude because it will only come across in your body language, tone and general presence and that will make for a negative interview (wow, think I crossed the line from informal advice to horrendous manager speak. I do apologise). A negative approach will also only mean that you may not pick up on something controversial or newsworthy that might be said, choosing instead to sit and pray for the whole thing to be over.

Don’t jiggle your leg

I and two other students had to conduct an interview with former diplomat Sir Edward Clay at City in front of the class. At the end Sir Edward gave us feedback on how we got on and the most constructive advice he gave me was something that never even crossed my mind; ‘Tom was quite distracting as he kept jiggling his leg’. I had thought about the handshake, how to sit, the ol’ nodding and smiling bit but not about the fact I might be distracting him with my coffee-induced twitching. It sounds cheesy but think of the little things as they can make a big difference.

Interview II

Photo courtesy of Thivierr

Shut up and listen

I have a bad habit of spinning out a question to the point where the interviewee no longer knows what I wanted to know in the first place. Don’t throw in elaborate points to show your extensive knowledge, get to the point, ask the question and make sure it is them doing all the talking. Therefore, if you’re not talking you should be listening. And not like listening casually to some music whilst also thinking of other things, really, really pay attention! As our interviewing guru at City Ann McFerran always tells us, this is the most important thing to remember. Before conducting an interview she writes ‘listen’ on her pad so as not to be distracted in jotting down a point or thinking of her next question.

Many say that being a good interviewer is a fine art and not everyone can do it. It is indeed a tough job and takes years of practice to get right. It is far easier to be a bad interviewer and as aspiring hacks that is something we can ill afford to be. Now, any questions?


About The Chancer
Tom is the former news and sport editor of Redbrick and also worked as the sport editor for The National Student. He has done work experience at local papers across the country and is currently studying the Newspaper Journalism MA at City University. He also co-writes the sport blog with The Student.

8 Responses to Listen up: some tips on interviewing

  1. Another piece of advice I would give is avoid Coffee Shops! Spent some time this week interviewing graduates for a piece with an online newspaper and they all wanted to meet in a coffee shop. Fine, not a problem…

    When I got home I uploaded the Dictaphone audio files and – to my horror – the conversation was loaded with coffee shop Xmas muzak!!

    I know the whole point of muzak is to not be obvious but you should definitely scout out your location if you get the chance before a chat. If it looks dodgy then have a backup plan – there’s nothing worse that looking like a complete amateur walking up and down Fulham Broadway for somewhere with no backing track…

    • Peter Demain says:

      Even what appears innocuous can obscure a recording. For instance I used my mic in Preston back in August with moderate breezes kicking up intermittantly by the river: the amount of garbage I had to filter out was almost unbearable. Wind didn’t help either.

      Pete, editor at Dirty Garnet.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Listen up: some tips on interviewing « Wannabe Hacks --

  3. Alice says:

    The Shut Up And Listen point is the best interviewing tip I have EVER had – it really is the number one, (although the leg-jiggling is certainly best warned against). My relatively extensive interviewing experience had been a case of me trying to demonstrate my knowledge about whatever subject the intervieweee was famous for. Not only do they not care, but it doesn’t get the quotes and uses up seconds of a valuable fifteen minute phoner.

    Do your homework. Don’t ask vague, generic questions (how’s it going on tour should be replaced with, ‘what’s been the best part of the touring experience’, for example) and feel prepared to have a chat. It’s usually where the most quote-able stuff comes out as the subject will stray from the prepared answers.

    Furthermore, for all you interns out there – never turn down an opportunity to transcribe. Yes, it can be dull as anything, especially if you get an obscure and awkward interview with a translator stuck in between. However, it will give you invaluable insight to how the pros do it. I went from transcribing 15 minute chats with local radio ‘pioneers’ in Austin and filmmakers in Peru to hour and a hour cover-story conversations with cover stars on work experience. Where else would you have the opportunity to closely examine the intricacies and workings of such a major interview piece?

  4. mhdbass says:

    Great, and again, just in time as I have an interview with a designer tomorrow! I would say though that for certain magazine interviews, it does help to be their friend and build up a bit of rapport so they open up and show some personality.

    Really good in-depth advice!

  5. Peter Demain says:

    Good advice generally, but consider what to do as precursor of all of these points. Great interviews of the past happily reside on YouTube – surely these are worthwhile as lessons?

    David Frost interviews Richard Nixon, 1977.

    That said the extent to which an interview is a performance apart from one’s personality is partial – Frost’s technique during his prime is a departure from his youth from what I read. Found his feet after the comedy.

    Pete, editor at Dirty Garnet.

  6. david dg says:

    An old lesson, often forgotten, don’t feel the need to fill in silences. If you’ve asked what you consider the right question and your interviewee is muling an answer, wait.

    In a famous CBS TV moment Edward R Murrow is interviewing Dr Oppenheimer (father of the Atomic bomb). Murrow asks the question and for about 40 seconds there is silence as the Dr thinks through his answer and finally replies.

    Also don’t be afraid to ask the question your mum would ask and press for an answer when the interviewee is being evasive. A UK TV moment is Diana Gould asking PM Thatcher about the sinking of the Belgrano.


    Interview with SA Dirk Coetzee
    interviewing tips, radio

  7. Rajvir Rai says:

    Having interviewed Meg Hillier earlier this afternoon the one thing I would say is keep track of the time! It might seem really obvious thing to say, but honestly if you only have a set time to talk to someone and you have a lot you want to ask you need to keep one eye on the clock.

    Ask The Student and The Chancer today about the look on my face when I got told I only had 2 minutes left. I couldn’t believe it.

    I guess what I learnt from today was that being well prepared is all well and good, but if you lose track of time then that prep work becomes obsolete.

    Great post guys. Keep the content coming!

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