I have always been shy. Public speaking terrifies me. My senior year of high school I made the mistake of signing up for a public speaking class through the local college. I was so nervous, I memorized every presentation word for word, including the final 10-minute speech (on the upbeat topic of animal testing), which I regurgitated at top speed.
Now, as a professional journalist, I feel a similar churning of nerves every time I conduct an interview. For one thing, the people I interview are often very accomplished, intimidating figures: best-selling authors, world-class athletes, brilliant artists and political figures. My very first interview was with Victoria Budson, the executive director of the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women and, luckily for me, a sweet, welcoming and well-spoken person, the saving grace for what I’m sure was a very amateur attempt.
Two years into my professional career, I conduct multiple interviews a month, committing myself to these conversations, and I believe I’ve become, if not good, certainly better at the elusive art of interviewing. Here are the strategies I have found useful when preparing for and conducting interviews.
Prepare questions in advance. A lot of them. Even if you don’t get a chance to ask them all, you at least won’t be stuck with a quiet subject and no more questions to ask. I learned this lesson when I interviewed a high-school volleyball player for a cover story. My page of questions took her seven minutes to knock out, one sentence-long answer at a time. A thorough list of questions also helps me stave off nerves by assuring that I have something to keep the conversation going even if I don’t have a good follow up to whatever the subject just said. Even so, don’t conduct the interview with eyes glued to your notes, constantly in preparation for your next question. Listen closely to what the subject has to say so if a point needs clarification or brings up additional questions, you’re ready.
When developing questions, make sure they require an extended response. Always what, how and why, instead of any form that would allow for a yes or no answer. This won’t always get you the exact response you’re fishing for, and if you have a specific point that needs to be confirmed or denied certainly ask them straight-up whether that thing happened or not, but otherwise, an open-ended question will result in a longer and more colorful answer.
Learn to appreciate silence. If your subject hesitates or balks after you ask a question, don’t rush to fill the space with a clarification or retraction. Likely, a hesitation is the precursor to the most revealing and interesting answer of the whole interview. You’ve done your part, let your subject fill the silence.
Control the conversation. I ask the questions, and I write the article. No matter who’s across the table or on the other side of the phone, he or she has given me permission to ask questions and that position carries a lot of power. Confidence in my authority as a journalist, in my questions and in myself is what will carry my interviewing skills as I accumulate experience one assignment at a time.