Interview Skills

This 613U mini-course is intended to help you hone your skills as a citizen journalist. Get a quick introduction to the topic by watching the video. Next, checkout our list of suggested resources to learn more about techniques or tools. Share any questions or comments in the forum section, or better yet pass along other ideas or resources of your own. We hope you get inspired to try something new.


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According to Columbia University, there are four principals to effective interviewing:


  1. Prepare carefully

You’ll never know ahead of time how an interview will go, but if you don’t the know the basics about your interviewee, then it’s bound to go south. Do some prep as a basic first step. Winging it shows a lack of respect to your interviewee and/or the research topic. If possible, try to find some past interviews on your subject, which may give you some ideas for where (or where not) to take the conversation. If you are covering something completely new or google is not being helpful, don’t be afraid to get on the phone or email to ask your subject some background questions before the actual interview.


2. Ask questions that induce the source to talk.

This is where all that hard work you put into preparation comes in handy! It will help you develop a list of questions/topics that will help you structure your interview. Think about what type of information you want to get out of your interviewee. Remember to cover off the basics: who, what, when, where, why and how. If you have done your research, but are still completely stuck for question ideas, try borrowing some ideas from these lists:

Spend some time thinking about how to structure your questions. Ask a yes/no question and you’ll likely get a yes/no answer. Open ended questions are more likely to get your subject talking. For example, instead of asking: “Did you choose to take the red pill?” Ask: “what factors led to your decision?” For further reading, please see:


3. Establish a relationship

Basically, this means making your subject feel comfortable and establishing trust. It starts with setting up the interview. Even if you are not a professional journalist, take yourself and the interview seriously. Let your subject know what to expect up front, including:

  • what topics the interview will cover (but not necessarily your questions! You still want the conversation to be spontaneous);
  • how long will the interview take;
  • where the interview will run.

Before the interview, take a few minutes to chat with the subject. Always ask before beginning to record the conversation, even if you are just using it to take notes. Follow up with a short thank you note after the interview is finished.


4. Listen!

This is harder then it sounds. A good interview is really just a good conversation with a bit more structure. Don’t just read through your prepared questions one by one like a laundry list. Instead, use each question as a launch point to take the conversation in a different direction. Listen for points of interest, new facts or surprises and ask follow up questions. Be prepared to let the conversation take you to places you didn’t expect.

Don’t be afraid to tell the interviewee that you didn’t understand something they said or to ask for clarification. Repeat what you think the person just told you to make sure you understand it. You can’t explain something if you’re unsure about it. If you’re still confused after the interview, don’t hesitate to follow up with the subject with some fact-checks and more questions.

One pro tip from an editor. “I realized after a few interviews that I was so engaged in the conversation, I barely took any relevant notes during the process which sometimes made it difficult to remember everything I wanted to capture in my article. I have since learned to record my interviews. You can use the old school recorder but most smart phones now have a handy recording device attached.”


Recommended Resources


Some more tips from the experts:





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