After reading this chapter, you will be able to:
How to Prepare for an Interview
No matter what you end up doing in journalism or strategic communication, at some point in your future classes and then in your professional life, you will have to interview someone. So it’s important to know how to prepare for and how to conduct an interview.
Let’s discuss a four-step checklist of preparing for an interview:
- Identify the purpose.
- Set up the interview.
- Research, research, research.
- Generate questions.
Step 1: Identify the purpose
The first thing you want to do is clearly identify the issue that you want to cover in your interview. This could be something that a professor already assigned to you, or a topic in which you’re really interested. Write down concisely what this issue is.
Let’s say that my issue is investigating the effects of drought on trees in Kansas. At the top of my notebook paper, I would write:
Issue: The drought’s effect on Kansas trees.
The next thing I would to do is figure out who I want to interview. The many individuals available for interview generally fall into two categories: experts and non-experts.
Experts are very steeped in a specific topic. Non-experts are people who might have a very individual experience to share with you, but aren’t necessarily very knowledgeable about the subject. Figure out which type of source your story needs and, ideally, how many individuals you want to interview. It’s possible that for your story or for your assignment, you want to interview both experts and non-experts.
Once you have an idea of the types of individuals you want to interview, you need to identify them and reach them.
Let’s say I want to find an expert on trees, and on the effect of the drought on trees in Kansas.
Universities are really great places to find experts on just about any general topic in which you’re interested. So, to find an expert, I would start with the website of a nearby university, in my case, the University of Kansas.
KU has a searchable portal about its experts and their areas of expertise. You can type any subject into the search box, and the site will present you with a list of individuals whose expertise is related to that subject.
If a university doesn’t have an experts portal, look for links on its main page that say “Academics,” and then “Departments” or “Schools,” to get a complete list of all the academic units on campus. Then, figure out what academic units would house experts on your topic, and find these units in the list of departments or schools.
Once you’re inside a department website, find a list of faculty, and read through the professors’ research and teaching interests. Identify a few people whose interests seem to match your topic, at least in part.
For my topic, I would look for departments like biology, ecology, and geography, and then scour their faculty bios. I would identify two or three possible experts and write down their names and contact information, including their office locations and, if they have them posted, office hours.
What about finding non-experts? Two strategies for this are social media crowdsourcing and nonprofits.
Crowdsourcing is about generating stuff from the crowd. So, if you go to Facebook or Twitter and ask your friends and followers: “Do you know anybody who has a story to tell about [insert your topic]?” you might be surprised at how many people will respond that they know somebody with a story.
The other strategy is to find a nonprofit whose issue is your topic. As we wrote in the Nonprofits chapter, there is a nonprofit for every issue under the sun. If you find a nonprofit related to your issue, you will connect with people who care deeply about the topic you are covering. A nonprofit can connect you with non-experts who are dealing with the issue, and with experts who are knowledgeable on the issue. As we discussed in the Nonprofits chapter, however, always keep in mind a nonprofit’s inherent bias.
Step 2: Setting up the interview
Getting people to agree to an interview might be the most difficult part of the interview process. This is especially difficult if you’re working on a deadline.
Remember that nobody is obligated to give you an interview. So you have to be very nice about it, but also be persistent.
Here’s a very important recommendation: don’t rely on email.
Emailing your contacts is worth a try. But here’s the problem: it’s very easy for somebody you’re emailing to ignore your email. If we’re honest with ourselves, all of us are ignoring several emails at any given time. So you need to be prepared for the fact that people might not want to respond to you, even if you’re on deadline. Don’t restrict yourself to email as a means of getting in touch with the people you want to interview.
If you’re trying to get in touch with an expert at a university, walk over to where his or her office is. If you can find out when the person’s office hours are, walk over during those office hours. If the office hours are not online, see if they are posted on the professor’s door. If that doesn’t work, get in touch with the departmental secretary, and ask if there are better times to see the individual.
But I can’t stress this enough: go over to where the person’s office is, and try to see them in person.
Often times, even if you don’t find the person you’re looking for in his or her office, there will be other people around with office doors open, who might be able to answer your questions, or to connect you with another expert.
Plan on people refusing to respond to you. This is why you need a list of a few experts, so that you have a plan B, C, D, and so on, when the other plans don’t pan out. Also, all of this is going to take time, so build disappointment and frustration into your timeline.
Step 3: Research, research, and research
The next step in preparing for an interview is doing research, research, and more research. You want to make sure that you have read a lot of things that other people have written about your issue. Also, you want know as much as you can about the person that you’re going to interview, and the work that they have done.
The first place to start doing research on a topic are news articles. The News chapter discusses strategies and issues related to searching for news. You want to make sure that you have read plenty of news articles on your topic, and that you have educated yourself about what other journalists and other experts have said about it.
Second, you want to make sure that you know the expert or the non-expert whom you will be interviewing.
Let’s say that in my quest to interview an expert about drought and plants, I identify Dr. Helen Alexander in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at KU.
To familiarize myself with her work, I would locate a list of her most recent articles on her departmental web page (click the Publications tab). If that’s not available, I would type her name into Google Scholar, and find a list of her articles there. Then, I would read her most recent articles to understand the issues and ideas with which she engages in her research. The Scholarly Research chapter discusses strategies and issues related to doing this.
The reason for reading the person’s research is to sound intelligent when I ask the expert questions. A good interview will confirm things that I already know from prior research. By familiarizing myself with the expert’s work ahead of time, I will be able to know the types of questions to ask, and to get the expert engaged in the subject matter. I might even make a list of vocabulary words that the expert uses in his or her writing, and make sure that I know their definitions, and how to use them in the questions I ask.
Step 4: Generate interview questions
The fourth step is generating good questions for the interview.
There are two types of questions: open-ended questions and closed-ended questions. Some people will say that closed-ended questions are off-limits in an interview, but I think that a good combination of questions will result in the best answers and the best information in an interview.
Closed-ended questions are ones that will elicit a short answer, often just a “Yes” or a “No.” So for example, if I was inquiring about the effect of the drought on trees in Kansas, I might ask, “Is the drought affecting tree populations in Kansas?” My interviewee would then either answer “Yes” or “No,” and then I’d have to move on to the next question.
But if my question was something like, “I’ve read that maple trees are particularly susceptible to the drought. Can you explain why maples are at greater risk than other trees?” That’s an open-ended question. It gives my interviewee an opening to explain what he or she knows about trees and, in particular, about maples.
While the number of questions to write ahead of time is going to vary, let’s say that as a general guideline I want to have somewhere between five and ten solid questions with which to go into the interview. Out of those, no more than two or three should be closed-ended questions. So seven or eight questions will be open-ended questions.
At the end of the ten questions, it is customary to write a standard question to use at the close of the interview. Usually, it’s something like, “Is there anything else that you’d like to tell me” about whatever your topic is. What will sometimes happen is that your interviewee will then open up about something that they think is important. What they tell you may enrich your story, take it in a completely different direction, or suggest follow-up stories that you might pursue later.
Once you have a list of questions, arrange them. You may start with an open-ended question that asks your interviewee to describe the larger problem at hand, maybe in relation to his or her own work. For instance, “Can you describe how, in your experience, drought affects trees that’s different from how it affects other plants?” A question like this may prompt the interviewee to discuss a topic that’s familiar to him or her, which can put them at ease.
Finally, prioritize your questions. Identify the ones that you really, really want answered, and also the ones that it’d be nice to get answered, but that may not be essential. You probably won’t get to all of the questions during the interview. By prioritizing the questions, you make sure that you cover the four or five questions that you really want answered.
Now that you have an interviewee and interview questions, let’s focus on good and not-so-good interview strategies.
In this section, in a series of videos, two KU journalism school alumnae, Becky and Leah, demonstrate good and not-so-good interview strategies. Let’s say that Becky’s assignment is to write a report on Rock Chalk Revue, and Leah is her expert source on Rock Chalk Revue.
Let’s see how well Becky does in the interview:
What are all the things that Becky did wrong in this interview?
She was late, improperly dressed, and forgot her interviewee’s name. Remember that people often are doing you a favor by sitting down with you for an interview. So show them proper respect.
Becky also obviously did not read the first section of this chapter on preparing for the interview. She didn’t come in with a prepared list of questions, and asked Leah things she should already know about Rock Chalk Revue from her research.
Let’s see if she redeems herself further in the interview.
What a relief! Becky did create some prepared questions. But what was the problem with these questions?
If you said that they were closed-ended questions, and that Becky was getting one-word answers that really wouldn’t provide a lot of information for her report, you are correct.
What are the things Becky did wrong in this last clip?
She wasn’t listening to Leah’s answers, and she wasn’t willing to go off-script to ask a follow-up question. Instead of sticking closely to her pre-written questions, Becky needs to be actively listening to what Leah is telling her, and be willing to ask follow-up questions that will provide more in-depth information.
That ending was a little rude, wasn’t it? There must be a more gracious way to finish an interview. So let’s take this back from the top, and see if Becky can do better in an alternate universe interview.
That was a much better way to start! Becky arrived on time, was dressed professionally, and was gracious towards Leah about the time she was giving her for the interview.
Here we see that Becky does not jump in right into her interview questions. She warms it up a little bit. She tries to set up trust between her and Leah. It’s like running a warm-up lap around the track before running a race.
Becky is asking some good open-ended questions! They prompt Leah to do most of the talking, and to give Becky a lot of colorful information for her report. Did you also notice how well researched Becky’s questions are? Becky came into this interview knowing a lot of information about what Leah is going to tell her.
What did Becky do right here?
She went off script and asked an important follow-up question.
Becky’s wrap-up also was very good. First, Becky asked the standard final question, which allowed Leah to give Becky additional information that Becky hadn’t thought of asking. She also thanked her for her time, and she left open the possibility that she will communicate with Leah in the future.
So let’s review what are some not-so-good interview strategies you saw Becky practice:
- She was late and unprofessional in how she looked and how she acted.
- She was unprepared, having done no research, and coming into the interview without any prepared question.
- When she did find a list of questions, they were all closed-ended.
- She did not listen actively and was unable to ask follow-up questions.
- She was abrupt in the way she closed the interview.
What were Becky’s good strategies?
- She was professional and gracious.
- She built trust between her and Leah before launching into the questions.
- She asked open-ended questions, she listened, and asked on-the-spot follow-up questions.
- She asked the final open-ended question.
- She left the lines of communication open for future follow-ups.
Now it’s your turn put your knowledge into practice, and enjoy your interviews.
The next interview chapter will explore more advanced strategies for conducting interviews, and for approaching interviews as conversations with risk.
A Practitioner’s View
B.S., KU Journalism, 1997
Sports Columnist, The Oklahoman
Interviewing, at its best, revolves around curiosity.
Before an interview, I am curious to know as much as possible about my subject. I scour archives and websites and anything else at my disposal for information that starts painting a picture about this person, but I never assume that my research fills in all the lines.
That’s what a good interview will do.
When I go into that interview, I use the information that I’ve learned to not only shape my questions but also let the person know that I care enough about them to come prepared. In the same way that you wouldn’t show up to someone’s house for a dinner party empty handed, you shouldn’t show up to an interview with no clue about the subject. It’s disrespectful, for one, but it’s also not going to help you do your best work.
If you go into the interview with some working knowledge of your subject, it will help you open your ears and listen. You will engage, and when your subject says something interesting, you will follow up and ask more. You will wonder why they did this. You will ask how they did that. You will drill down into the story. You will uncover great riches.
Activity 1: Who’s an expert?
Think of an interesting topic you would like to learn more about. Next, search KU’s portal about its experts to locate a potential contact to interview. After locating someone, research their background to learn more about them and your topic. Finally, draft a list of questions you could potentially ask your local expert.
Activity 2: Practice makes perfect
The more you interview people, the better and easier your interviews will be. Draft a list of 10 questions that to ask a friend or roommate. Try to avoid topics that you already know about them, such as their love of tacos. Instead, focus on their hobbies, special knowledge, or other aspects of their life that you do not know much about. With list in hand, interview your friend using the recommended practices above. After, reflect upon your experience. What went well? Did you accomplish your goals? How well did you follow our recommended practices?