Art of the Interview: Asking the right questions, part I

The Art of the Interview is an occasional series designed to help young journalists build critical interviewing skills.

A good article starts with a good interview. The quality of your source’s answers — and, ultimately, the quality of your story — depends on the questions you ask.

So, what questions should you ask during an interview?

I group questions into two categories. The first are the basic questions that ensure your understanding of the topic is accurate and complete.

Questions in the second category, by contrast, dive deeper, exploring the “why.” These questions are designed to draw out a source’s motivations, inner thoughts, fears, and hopes. We’ll look at those in more depth later.

For now, let’s start with the basics.

Just the facts

The foundation of any good story is accuracy, pure and simple. The best written feature or enterprise piece is marred by error, so it’s essential to get your facts straight. It’s also essential to be thorough, so your questions must be comprehensive without dragging readers through a lot of unnecessary detail.

Here are the questions I ask in every interview.

Can you spell your first and last name for me, please?

Verify your source’s name spelling, every time, every interview. I know it seems redundant, but it’s necessary. Nothing is more mortifying to a source than seeing her own name misspelled in print. Also, when you take care to ensure you have her name spelling correct, you’re proving your diligence and attention to detail. This will help establish your source’s confidence in you, particularly if she has been victim of sloppy journalism in the past.

Once the source has spelled her name, verify it. Spell it back to her. If you’re interviewing in person, show her your notebook, have her look at the spelling, and verify that it’s correct. If you’re on the phone, spell the name back to the source, verifying every letter that could be misheard. (For example, S could be misheard as F, and B could be misheard as T, E, D, or P.) So, if the source’s name is Smith, say, “Smith, that’s S as in Sam, M as in Mary ….”

Getting a copy of the source’s business card is a handy shortcut. However, ask the source if her name is spelled on it correctly before using it. This is unlikely, but it is possible. Maybe it’s a new card, and the source hasn’t noticed the typo yet. Who knows? Always check. It’s better to appear paranoid and be right than appear over-confident and be wrong.

Can I have your title, please?

Titles count. They can also be tricky. The title a source prefers to use may depend on the capacity in which he’s being interviewed. Or, his title may have changed since you last interviewed him. You never know. So, it’s good to verify.

Just to double-check, the title of the company is …

If you’re interviewing a representative of a company or organization, check the spelling of the institution’s name. Don’t forget to ask about nontraditional spelling and spaces between words. Also ask whether LLC, Inc., Co., or some other abbreviation follows the title.

Who, what, when, and where

Each story will require its own unique questions. The more relevant questions you can think of, the better chance you’ll have of creating a comprehensive story. Here are some ideas to get you thinking.

  • Who: Who are the other players? Who is responsible? Who is impacted? Who wants to know? Who cares?
  • What: What happened? What next? What is the process? What caused this? What will this cause?
  • How: How does it work? How did it happen? How will this thing change? How will this thing change the people, things, or events around it?
  • When: When did it happen, or when will it happen? (Think TDP: time, date, place.) When did this start? When will it end? When will we know what happens next?
Is there anything else you’d like to add, or is there anything you think I forgot to ask you?

This question has saved my bacon on numerous occasions. This is the source’s chance to correct me if I’ve missed a key piece of the story or missed the point of the story entirely. You definitely don’t want to go to print with incomplete information, so make this question your life preserver.

Up next

In Part II of this piece, we’ll look at the questions you can use to dive deeper into the story.

Your turn

What questions do you ask most frequently during an interview? What tools and tricks do you use to verify facts? Leave them in the comments below.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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