Interviewing for journalists – top tips

3 10 2011

I wouldn’t list phone calls as one of my strengths, writes Chloe McLaren. In fact, if I’m honest having a phone isn’t one of my strengths. So when we arrived for an afternoon of reporting and were faced with a lesson full of phone interviews, suddenly losing my phone a couple of days before seemed like the best thing that had ever happened to me. Well, apart from getting on the NCTJ course and that time in Asda when a loaf of Warburtons had a ‘Reduced to 30p’ sticker on it. True to form though, Brighton Journalist Works had a cordless office phone and I was forced to face my fear.

We were given a situation which required us to call a member of the (Journalist Works) police force (who looked alarmingly like my tutor) for information on an attack which had taken place, and had eight minutes to prepare some questions. When our time was up, the interview began.

Asking the right questions was key to this exercise, and questions which you’d think were insignificant to ask, turned out to be useful in creating a picture of the bigger story and getting as much info as possible out of the ‘officer’. With no idea of what the interviewee would have to say on the events which had taken place, it was difficult to not be thrown by some answers, and at times I found myself off track. This time of the interview was apparent as one of my notes read ‘yes’. Useful.

I’ll always dislike phone calls, and it’ll probably be a good few years before I stop losing phones, but I learnt a lot from this exercise. Aside from realising it is possible to probe a stranger for information and people aren’t that scary, I knew from this day on I’d need a contract with more minutes.

by Chloe McLaren

I never would have imagined that asking someone questions on the phone could be so difficult, writes Emma Walker. That was until the second week of my NCTJ Diploma at Brighton Journalist Works when our tutors set us a phone interview challenge.

We were given some basic facts for a news story and left to find out the rest from one of the experienced journalist tutors, who would be posing as a fictional interviewee, in a staged phone interview.

This exercise has been one of the many useful tasks that I have been set by Journalist Works and I’ve now pulled together a list of tips on how to conduct a professional phone interview.

  • Prepare some questions to keep a structure to the interview but remember you don’t have to rigidly stick to them.
  • Be upfront by saying exactly who you and why you are calling, this will put your interviewee at ease.
  • Remember it is okay to ask for something to be repeated (i.e. names, address and spellings). Make sure you get your facts right as it is better to be accurate than to upset your source and embarrass yourself.
  • Ask open-ended questions that avoid just simple yes or no answers.
  • Remember human interest is the key, stories are about people.
  • Leave the most contentious questions to the end, to keep the tone positive from the start.
  • Be polite, thank them for their time.
  • Remember to ask if they have anything to add, this leaves a window for any extra information you may have missed.
  • Ask if it would be okay for you to ring back in case any new information emerges – get a number and ask when the best time to call is.

With all this in mind I feel so much more confident about phone interviews now; Brighton Journalist Works really are preparing us for what the real world of Journalism is like.

There is nothing quite like being thrown in at the deep end.

Emma Walker

About a year ago I was lucky enough to interview a top band, says Rhys Morgan. It was a phone interview between me and three members of the band.. No loud-speaker lead to awkward silences as the phone was passed from person to person. I froze during the interview, laughed awkwardly at jokes that I didn’t get and stuck rigidly to the pre-planned questions I had chosen.

Since my lesson on phone interviewing at BJW I think I’ve improved. The three best bits of advice given to us were: always introduce yourself and let your interviewee know where you are calling from; don’t stick to the planned questions – if you discover something interesting during the interview, don’t be afraid to veer off and explore new avenues of questioning; always be sure to finish by asking if there is anything else the interviewee can add to the information.

As a junior writer, the thought of interviewing (probably anyone) still conjures up a sense of doom., says Becky Freeth.  I defy anyone not to become flustered, forget questions and develop a stammer. I am reassured though that interviewing is a skill that everyone needs practise to perfect. That is why a workshop on interviewing technique was a great way to launch into ‘the art of the interview’.

The workshop highlighted the importance of being able to ‘ad-lib’ and develop leads. I hope this will be a natural progression as we broaden our experience as writers and reporters. Equally, losing the natural stammer and sense of doom will be part of becoming comfortable with an interview situation. Thanks to the workshop, the prospect of conducting an impromptu interview has become a lot less daunting. It was a great way to get familiar with the nature of interviewing and a really valuable exercise all round. Thanks for another great day in the hub!

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