10 rules for conducting effective interviews

October 12, 2009 | Interviewing

If you read blogs, listen to podcasts or watch videos and webinars it doesn’t take long to come to this conclusion: Most people are dreadful interviewers.

Learn to ask the right questions and the content produced improves tremendously. But where do we turn for the expertise we need?

One of the best sources is Canadian investigative reporter John Sawatsky, who is widely considered journalism’s foremost expert on the art and science of effective interviewing. Years of research taught Sawatsky that the best results are gathered by those who go into interviews prepared to ask neutral, open-ended questions.

Sawatsky formulated many of the principles he teaches after listening to his own tape recorded interviews. He realized his questions were getting in the way of receiving the answers he was after. In the fall of 1982, the dean of one of Canada’s leading journalism schools persuaded him to teach a class in investigative reporting.

Sawatsky eventually turned his attention to controversial Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. He began researching a Mulroney biography, using his students as free labor. He was reluctant to set the students loose on interviewing expeditions without road maps, so the group devised a list of standardized questions every week. Each student took the list, interviewed a different source with the same questions, and returned the next week with a transcript of the interview.

“What came back humbled me,” Sawatsky told American Journalism Review.

Some questions consistently produced remarkable results, while others always bombed. The class became an “interviewing laboratory.” He repeated the exercise week after week, year after year, analyzing the interview as a scientist would a chemical compound.

Here are 10 rules for effective interviewing, based on Sawatsky’s findings. They are culled from an American Journalism Review article about Sawatsky.

  1. Avoid making statements during interviews.
  2. Avoid asking close-ended questions a source can answer with “yes” or “no.”
  3. Ask open-ended, neutral questions beginning with “what,” “how,” “why” and, to a lesser degree, “who,” “when” and “where.”
  4. Sound conversational, but never engage in conversation. The goal of a conversation is to exchange information; the goal of an interview is to receive information. In a conversation, two people compete to make a point, and it becomes a contest for control.
  5. The interviewer is not a sparring partner but more like a therapist, a professional listener who leads the source down a path toward a goal.
  6. Resist the temptation to converse or sympathize.
  7. Resist the temptation to add value or meaning to questions.
  8. Use short, neutral questions that repeat the source’s own words. If the source makes a value-laden statement – for example, “Brian can be excessive at times” – follow up with: “What do you mean, excessive?”
  9. Colorless questions usually provide colorful answers.
  10. Leave the values out. Instead of asking Sarah Ferguson, “Is it hard being a duchess?” ask, “What’s it like being a duchess?” Instead of asking Ronald Reagan, “Were you scared when you were shot?” ask, “What’s it like to be shot?”

You might have some techniques of your own that have proven effective. Click on the “comment” link and share them with us.

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Tired of people telling you that length counts?

Well … not to keep pressing a sore point … but they’re right when it comes to writing. Then again, they almost certainly have the virtues of length backward in many instances.

When it comes to particular types of writing, length counts for plenty – and there are years of research to prove it. Before you continue operating from the premise that everything you write should be as short as possible, click on the headline to check out today’s blog post. You will be surprised by what you find.

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Find out what they are in this post, and read examples of how they can be used to strengthen business writing.

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