Earlier this week I posted about a really positive experience of a sensitive interview with a young transsexual man. Today I thought I’d offer some ideas for preparing for and carrying out an interview where the subject matter may be highly personal or even traumatic.
Think of the interview as a guided conversation. It is not an interrogation and the interviewee should almost forget you’re a journalist. Your job is to make the subject feel comfortable enough to open up so you can get all the information you need.
Do your research thoroughly. More than anything, this will prevent you from alienating your interviewee with a gauche or even insulting question. Before interviewing my trans man, for example, I did lots of research into the difference between transgenderism and transsexualism and the correct terminology to use.
At the same time, don’t be afraid to ask naive questions during the interview. You’ll need to get your interviewee to speak in layman’s terms so even though you’ve done your research, imagine you know as much as the average reader. If they use jargon, ask them to explain.
Prepare a list of points you want to cover. You don’t want to interrogate them with quickfire questions, but glancing at this list every now and then will just make sure you’re not missing anything important.
Even if you have shorthand, record the interview. You need to connect with the interviewee to gain his or her trust. This means lots of nodding and eye contact – if you’re frantically scribbling away it might make the interviewee uncomfortable. Instead, just use your notebook to jot down any points arising during the interview that you want to come back to.
During the interview, you want to put your subject at ease. I usually start by explaining the process and telling him or her what kind of feature I’m writing. Then I ask the subject to “start at the beginning” of their story.
Never contradict the interviewee, even if you personally disagree. Think of yourself as a combination of journalist, friend and therapist. Share a joke, show that you sympathise where it seems appropriate but don’t end up talking too much about yourself.
Don’t try to fill silences. Give the interviewee space to think and to open up. Ask simple but open-ended questions to get to the emotional heart of the story. You’ll be surprised how far you’ll get just by asking, “How did that make you feel?”
Image by Jonathan Ooi.
- Top tips for your journalism Masters interview It’s interview season with lots of wannabe hacks setting off...
- How to interview part 2: Six tips for over the phone In a Wannabe Hacks ‘How to’ triple-header, the Freelancer, Chancer...
- The sensitive side to journalism: a personal perspective It’s hard being a journalist sometimes. We get called phone...
- How to interview part 3: six tips on how to interview via email It’s quite awkward to be finishing off our interviewing triple-header...
- How to interview part 1: six tips on face-to-faces In a Wannabe Hacks triple-header, the Freelancer, Chancer and Maverick...
After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look