Today more than two dozen veteran journalists share a lot of advice on interviewing, especially about dealing with nerves.
It turns out the journalism student who started the conversation has a lot of company. Even veteran journalists get nervous when they interview, sometimes extremely so. But lots of us learn to overcome our nerves and invite people to tell their stories, and we’ve enjoyed careers even though the nerves never go completely away.
The conversation started this week in a private Facebook group, where a journalism professor sought aid from some former colleagues, asking for advice on helping a student who “is really struggling when he has to interview people in his intro to reporting class. He gets very nervous and just can’t do it.”
Veteran journalists in the group offered great advice. I updated an old handout on interviewing and sought still more advice. Some of the advice overlaps, but I regard that as reinforcement, not repetition.
The responses here (lightly edited, often at the writers’ request) come from the original conversation on Facebook and comments on yesterday’s blog post from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and email (comments and photos used with permission):
Advice for the student
Yvonne, city life reporter and Reno Rebirth digital project manager at the Reno Gazette-Journal, gave this tip:
A wise, introverted photog once told me “you can put on another personality. You’re acting. Be a great actress.” Another thing is: That uncomfortable feeling goes away with age.
Lucia Herndon Horning
Lucia is retired from the Philadelphia Inquirer “working a little part-time gig in a needlepoint shop and mostly a wife, mother (grandmother), cook, avid reader and needle smith (needlepoint and knitting).” About 30 years ago, our desks were side by side at the Register, her on the state desk, me on the city desk:
Nerves can get the best of all of us. As a young reporter I used to think of the question-asking-reporter as a different part of myself. She could ask questions and get rebuffed sometimes and it didn’t bother the more sensitive side of me. We all do that at different times in our lives; rely on different sides of your personality to handle the business at hand. Questioning a doctor on behalf of your elderly mother. Not hard even if most times you are not so inquisitive.
Your young student will find, in time, that asking questions gets easier, especially if he’s really listening and paying attention to the person he’s questioning.
Update: Ken gave me permission to post this after I initially published the post. I was Ken’s editor back in the early 1980s, when we both were at the Des Moines Register. I’ve cited his advice and examples frequently on this blog. After two hitches at the Register and one at the Baltimore Sun (and lots of writing awards), Ken is the marketing writer and media strategist at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa:
I’d echo those who say the more you do it, the easier it becomes (but never easy). Also, write out questions ahead of time. You don’t have to stick religiously to the game plan, but it’s good to have a list of questions as a security blanket. Also, tell him to remember that most folks love talking about themselves. You’re just giving them the chance.
Jason, a former journalist now working as an investigator for the State of Iowa Office of Ombudsman:
I am among those who had a lot of pre-interview nerves to overcome in my early reporting days. It’s pretty normal, and I think, healthy to a point. For a lot of us, talking with complete strangers is not something we do socially, so it stands to reason that doing so in professional contexts is not always easy, either. So, it can be incredibly daunting the first few times out.
Like anything, however, it gets better and easier with practice and experience. I’m with those who’ve suggested writing questions down in advance. While over-scripting interviews can be problematic, you also never know when a source is going to completely throw you off-track. So, it never hurts to have a list to refer to.
Lastly, I would submit that a little bit of nervousness can be a good thing because sources are sometimes a little nervous during interviews, too. In a weird way, coming off a little nervous or shy can actually humanize you to the person you’re interviewing. I know I’d rather come across a little nervous or shy than one of those reporters who comes across over-confident or arrogant.
Cara is a blogger and former journalist, now building a crafts business in the San Francisco Bay area, Mary Marie Knits:
I never got over the initial nervousness part but I grew to really love doing interviews. I think sometimes introverts can be better at one-on-one conversations. Better at listening, better at picking up on what the other person is feeling and eventually getting them to talk more openly.
So I would say that if you can find a way to power through the initial fear (knowing that the other person is probably nervous, too), you will find rewards.
Lisa is a freelance journalist in Wisconsin:
When I first started reporting I was so nervous that I spent too much time focusing on my next question instead of listening to the answer of my initial question. I lost valuable information because I didn’t focus on their answers.
Christoph, a former colleague at the Cedar Rapids Gazette, is Director of Content Marketing at MedTouch:
I just think of interviews as conversations. What would I want to know next? It makes it feel less formal — for me and the person I’m interviewing.I still do journalism-style interviews with physicians across the US today.
Deb spent 20 years in newspapers, 10 years as a magazine editor and is currently a “freelance writer/editor/photographer/creative project manager who specializes in gardening”:
I had trouble approaching a table to take an order when I was a waitress in high school … that’s how hard it was for me! Tuning into my natural curiosity became a learned skill.
Keeping the audience in mind—not yourself—is key. Remind yourself that you’re asking the questions that others would ask if they were in your shoes. You’re the messenger, and it’s a privilege to be able to tell them what you learned.
Remember that sometimes the other person is even more nervous than you but it’s an opportunity to make a connection with that person, and then to connect it to the rest of the world. Getting out of your own head and into the other person’s is what makes it fun.
Rene‘s a longtime friend from my days in newsroom training, now a web editor and adjunct communication professor at St. Cloud State University:
Conversations vs. interviews. If you’re genuinely interested in the answers (not just as a means to a story), you’ll have better interviews and stories because you’ll have better understanding. Work from the perspective: What do I need to learn about this topic/issue/person? Or, what can I learn about this from this person? Works better with government employees, scientists, criminals and grandmas who make doilies than seasoned politicians with talking points, but …
Julio, a former Digital First Media colleague who’s a technology reporter and blogger for the St. Paul Pioneer Press shared a link to a post about overcoming his fear of speaking in public, a similar type of nerves:
@stevebuttry I am an introvert, so I will never *not* be nervous (like when public speaking) but you knock the fear down through repetition.
— Julio Ojeda-Zapata (@ojezap) March 12, 2015
Dan, like me, worked two hitches years apart as a Des Moines Register reporter (we overlapped on the first one), and is now a sales executive for TLC Vintage Collection:
He should be nervous. It’s natural and a sign that he wants to do well. Preparation is the best cure for interviewer insecurity.
Allison is a technical writer/educator at Workfront in Lehi, Utah:
I wonder if he just doesn’t have confidence in himself. I struggle with that, and I know it makes me nervous when I’m doing something for the first time. I’ve learned just to tell myself that everything will be OK and that I have to put on a professional front, otherwise my customer/interviewee isn’t going to be comfortable either.
John is a Des Moines Register sportswriter:
Practice, listen to others conducting interviews, write down questions beforehand and do a job shadow. Changing majors will not “solve” someone’s problems with nerves.
I was an editor at the Des Moines Register when Bill started as a reporter there more than 30 years ago. I’ve left twice since then and he’s stayed put. He covers state government and politics:
I have been doing this for 40 years and I still feel that way at times. It’s kind of like speech class. The more you do it the easier it gets. I just told a young reporter the other day I remember being so nervous one time I almost fainted, but I forged ahead and it got better.
Jennifer Gaie Hellum
I was nervous about interviews when I started reporting but soon learned to trust that if a person agreed to an interview, there was something the person wanted to share. That awareness liberated me from feeling like I was taking advantage of a person and shifted to feeling like I was providing a forum for being heard.
I was interviewing a Vietnam vet for the Veterans Listening Project. Our interview was the first one I’d ever done, and I felt tentative approaching this friend of a friend for my assignment. But he returned my messages promptly every time I contacted him to arrange the interview, so I felt reassured he wasn’t doing something he didn’t want to do.
When I finally conducted the interview with him – which went on for over an hour – he said he’d revealed memories to me that he’d never shared with anyone before. That’s when I knew he had a story he’d wanted to tell, and I felt honored he’d trusted a rookie journalist with it.
Tips for teaching interviewing skills
Andie is a Des Moines Register editorial writer who teaches a class at Iowa State University:
I’m teaching a public affairs class right now and we did something this week that I think helps students like this. We are starting a unit on covering law enforcement and I invited two police officers to class. Each student prepared a question ahead of time to ask. (They asked about everything from obtaining arrest reports to body cameras to high-speed chase policies).
The group setting is less daunting and students can observe and learn about themselves and from each other. It was kind of a “group interview” that lets them practice asking questions and follow-ups without all the pressure being on just one student. Might be a good place to start.
Jacqui is managing editor for four IT websites and a fan liaison for actors, advising them on social media and booking them for conventions:
Unless you have him writing hard news, I would also encourage him to think of it as a conversation. In my current side gig, I see moderators for panels go religiously down the list of questions, and they aren’t *listening.*
People love to talk about themselves. One of my clients was always hailed for being so charming and thoughtful and engaged, and really, he’d just ask people lots of questions about themselves, and listen and tailor the next question based on the response to the last one.
But, you know, also have that tape recorder going and make notes. Ha! No pressure.
Susan Masid Kerss
Sue is a freelance writer/editor and project manager in Des Moines who also overlapped with both of my Register hitches:
I taught a couple of beginning journalism classes at AIB. Because of students’ discomfort interviewing, I allowed them to work in twos or threes. They prepared questions ahead of time, and we would practice interviewing in the classroom in front of classmates. I also advised them to think about what they and their neighbors would want to know about the subject. And one could always add “tell me about …,,,” and that usually opens up the subject. And – anything else that I haven’t asked about …?
Kristina is an editor for a government contractor that focuses on international development:
Do you know the source of the nervousness? Is it fear of failure, or something like shyness/social anxiety? I have always struggled with the latter, and it could have driven me away from journalism except that one of my first mentors helped me out greatly by assigning stories to me with sources she knew would be safe, friendly interviews. It helped tremendously and gave me confidence to eventually approach unknown targets.
If it’s more a “fear of failure” nervousness, the preparation stuff would be handy, but in my case, spending a lot of time preparing would have just made me more anxious about having to talk to someone I didn’t know.
Diane worked for me, covering the Iowa legislature, in my first hitch at the Des Moines Register, and I worked for her in my second hitch, when she was managing editor. Now she’s a freelance editor and writer in Des Moines:
Interviewing skills also can be valuable life skills, no matter the career you choose. Doesn’t make it easier, but perhaps he’ll appreciate the potential for a bigger payoff.
Any truth to what I’ve been told – that face-to-face interviewing has become even more difficult for students who rely heavily on texting, tweets and FB posts for much of their communication?
I’d be interested in answers to that question from professors or editors who’ve taught students or supervised young journalists through the digital age. I’m inclined to think interviewing has always been a daunting task that intimidated journalism students until we/they developed confidence. I’m sure cultural issues of the day can play into that, but probably no more than personality. It’s easier for some students than for others, but daunting for nearly all.
Wendell is a retired journalism professor from American University (and a veteran journalist before that). We overlapped at both the Des Moines Register and AU:
Go with him. Start with non-confrontational topics, subjects. Find out what he knows about and let him report on that. Turn him onto data.
My reply to Wendell in the Facebook discussion:
I endorse Wendell’s suggestion about data, but data journalists need to be able to interview after they analyze the data.
And Wendell answered:
I certainly agree that analysis of data requires interviews. I was only suggesting approaches that might help the student walk slowly, while he gains confidence.
I agree. And I’ll add that good data analysis will increase your confidence in the topic you’re interviewing about, which might make you less nervous.
Rehearsing with friends helps, so he gets comfortable with asking follow-up questions (so that the interview becomes less interrogation and more conversation).
Teach him how to listen … and how to show an interviewee that he’s listening. If he’s afraid of missing things because he can’t write notes fast enough, go over recording options with him.
Also, in college, I found that it helped to be armed with a title: “Hi, I’m XXXX, a reporter from XXXX University…” It was the truth, and it felt more emboldening and sounded more important than just “Hi, I’m a student journalist …”
Mary is a technical writer at DuPont Pioneer:
I was confident in my writing ability but extraordinarily shy when I started in journalism at Grand View. We were each assigned a department to contact for news tips and years later, I was told when I stopped by to ask for news tips, I never raised my eyes from my feet and spoke so softly they could barely hear me.
My observation is that a good percentage of journalists are natural introverts. It’s okay to suck at interviewing at first. It’s not really a natural skill even for extroverts.
Tell him to make his list of questions, ask them the best he can, get the best answers he can, and quit worrying about whether he’s any good at it. Let him know that no matter whether he decides to stay with journalism or not, he’ll never regret learning to push himself out of his comfort zone and try something hard for him.
That’s a point I’ve made as well: You don’t find success in your comfort zone.
More advice from Twitter
@stevebuttry My add. Wanna get someone to talk? Tell them you think you know what they’d say and paraphrase their view. They’ll correct you.
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) March 13, 2015
Hal, a former Digital First colleague from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, replied to Jay:
— Hal Davis (@haldavis3) March 13, 2015
Actually, Jay’s advice and Hal’s might heighten the students’ nerves. Part of the fear in going into an interview might be of making a mistake or making a fool of yourself. And I don’t think either of them actually meant to suggest that you actually make errors deliberately in an interview. But a point in interviewing is to get to the truth (or this person’s version of it), and the inadvertent errors you might make in an interview will help you get there (and maybe build confidence as you find out how willing most people are to help you find the truth).
If someone is reticent to talk (which can compound your nervousness initially), telling them what you’ve learned so far (which they may disagree with and which certainly is incomplete, which is why you’re talking to them) is a good way to draw them out.
Thanks to these many veteran journalists for the excellent advice and for letting me use it. I will update if I hear back from others granting permission to use their comments. And I’d like to add your advice if we’ve missed some tips that helped you gain confidence in interviewing.
Other posts with interviewing tips
I deal with interviewing in several other blog posts:
My 2002 interview with Mikhail Gorbachev (in which I discuss techniques for interviewing through an interpreter)
Resources to help with interviewing
These are resources from more than 10 years ago, when I developed this handout (I had to cut several that are no longer online). Do you have (or know of) some other resources on interviewing (especially newer ones, that might deal more with digital technology than I have here)?
Update: Thanks to Charlie Meyerson for sharing this link: A guide to interview techniques for broadcast, print and other media
“Dr. Ink’s” Shut Up and Listen (I named mine first)
Chip Scanlan’s First Rule of Interviewing: Be Human
Chip Scanlan’s Redeeming Your Interviews
Bob Steele’s Handle with Care: The Victim’s Perspective
Bob Steele’s Crisis Reporting and Respectful Interviewing