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Interviewing beyond words

Media | How journalists can effectively elicit answers to their questions

(Fifth in an occasional series on journalism. See “The Christian journalist,” May 25, 2013; “The joy of Christian journalism,” Aug. 24, 2013; “Moving from suite-level to street level,” Nov. 2, 2013; and “Storytelling from simple to complex,” March 8, 2014.)

Our 16th annual World Journalism Institute course for college students and recent graduates begins Monday, and in the course of our intensive look at articles they’ve written we’ll discuss how reporters get good material by interviewing. Here are a few tips, starting with one that seems counter-intuitive:

The goal of an interview is not primarily to elicit words.

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One master reporter, Richard Ben Cramer, said this about a common journalistic error: “I’ve been interviewed a lot during book tours. I see how newspaper people, in particular, do it. They’ll ask you a question. And as you start to talk they bend their heads to their notebooks and try to get down every word. They barely look at you again for 45 minutes. Now that’s entirely the wrong way to get any sense of anybody!”

What are other wrong ways? Some newspaper reporters conduct interviews to check off a name on a list, to get a story-“balancing” quotation. Others play journalistic ventriloquism. That’s where the reporter quotes a source saying what the reporter believes but will not say either because his organization does not allow him to express an opinion, or because he lacks the courage to say it himself.

Think about the three main ways journalists get information: They see for themselves, they ask others what they have seen for themselves, and they ask others what they know and trust about what others have seen for themselves. Good interviews serve all three purposes: The interviewer sees how interviewees answer hard or unexpected questions, hears the anecdotes they tell, and probes for additional information and sources.

This is why the ability to conduct good interviews is key: In this lesson we’ll see how to get information that goes beyond words.


Master reporters work hard to see in action someone they are profiling. As Michael Lewis put it, “Characters are always so much more interesting when they are moving through space than they are when they are at rest (especially when they are behind a desk in their office). Even when what they’re doing is irrelevant to what I’m writing about, I just want to participate in something with them.”

When it comes to words, the goal is to move the interviewee to tell stories. If he says someone is generous, push for an anecdote that shows generosity. Remember: Specificity is felicity. Write truck, not vehicle; write Ford truck, not truck; write Ford Ranger, not Ford truck. In pushing for descriptive information always ask for names, dates, times, colors, locations, ages, numbers: What exactly did you see? What did he look like?

No time to visit a maximum-security prison, or no access to one? Get a description from a trustworthy guard. Writing about an earthquake? Get a graphic description from someone who was there. No, make that more than one person, for just as we need two eyes for depth perception, so we need the testimony of two or more reliable witnesses before settling for detail garnered from afar.

Always press for specifics. If a person says, “I was worried, and I was praying,” get specifics: “What were you praying? Were you praying out loud? What did you say?” Press for lively quotations and push interviewees to use metaphors or similes by asking, “What was it like”? If the subject has said something substantively interesting but in a bland way, rephrase questions and see if on second try you get a livelier response.

Remember, you will only get specific detail about what the interviewee has seen if you ask for it. Do not ask a bland, “What was it like,” but “What did the punch feel like?” Not “What makes you happy,” but “What was the happiest moment of your life?” Not “Was that a hard day?” but “What was the worst experience of your life?”

Superlative questions—happiest, worst—make an interviewee think. Weird questions also function that way. Kramer and Call, in Telling True Stories, write about asking “six men who were crossing Antarctica on foot—and almost died in the process—whether Antarctica was male or female, and why. The question helped them relate to the continent in a new and personal way. Ask people what they worry about most or who matters most to them or what makes them most afraid. Always follow these abstract questions with concrete ones to elicit specific anecdotes.”


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