Monday, January 02, 2006

Meeting recap: The art of interviewing: 30 years of listening hard

Reporter John Lofflin shares tips garnered from his long reporting career.
By Amy Florence Fischbach, vice president of the Kansas City chapter and staff writer for EC&M magazine

Writers must treat an interview like a conversation, says John Lofflin, a veteran journalist and journalism professor. “It's the not the questions you ask, but it's the way you listen,” he says. “If you have genuine curiosity and get your sources to teach you about a subject, you’ll always get the information you need.”

Lofflin says learning from his sources has been the driving force in his career. He has conducted about 3,000 interviews in his 33 years as a journalist. Through his years of experience, he developed the following rules for interviewing, which he shared with B2B editors at an ASBPE meeting in Kansas City, Mo. He learned many of these strategies the hard way as a reporter for a Nebraska daily, freelancer for Money magazine, and special assignments editor for Veterinary Economics.
  1. Never sit down in the waiting room. If you sit down and pick up a magazine, youíll be there a long time. Stand up, start pacing, and keep everyone a little bit on edge.
  2. Always be nice to the secretary. Secretaries do a lot of the work around an office and often run the place. Treat them with respect.
  3. Never drink during an interview. Drinking and interviewing is as bad of a combination as drinking and driving, Lofflin says.
  4. Always ask a good question as you’re leaving. Interviewers always need to ask one last question as they’re standing up, packing up their notebook, and starting for the door.
  5. Immediately transcribe your notes. After you walk out the door, find a place to work on your notes. You will remember far more than you think you remember, and while the interview is still fresh in your mind, you can fill in the blanks.
  6. Never interview more than one person at a time if you can avoid it. Lofflin once interviewed three sources simultaneously during an intense deadline, and he had to stay up all night wading through his notes.
  7. Be prepared for anything during an interview. Writers need to have a certain mindset for an interview and be ready for any challenge that comes their way. For example, Lofflin remembers interviewing a source in the rain, and the ink on the paper washed away as he was writing. Since then, he has learned to use a pencil rather than a pen to take notes.
  8. Don’t order hard-to-eat foods in a restaurant. Never order fried chicken because you have to eat it with your hands. Another no-no is pasta. “You should never think about eating during an interview,” Lofflin says. “Just order the salad and let it sit there.”
  9. Block off enough time for the interview. Spend as much time as necessary with your sources in order to get solid background information, colorful details, and strong full-bodied quotes. Lofflin always asks his sources to block off an hourís worth of time for an interview, and at the conclusion, he asks them if he can call them again for a follow-up hour-long interview.
  10. Take good notes and don’t depend on a tape recorder. Lofflin learned his lesson the hard way when he recorded only the sound of the windshield wipers when he gave his source a ride from the airport. Because he wasn’t able to take notes, had to remember what was said and reconstruct it.
Lofflin discovered these rules of interviewing through more than three decades in the journalism business. He says he originally became a journalist because he enjoyed writing, but he’s stayed in the business because of the interviewing. “Writing is fun, but you’re only writing creatively for an hour or two,” he says. “You’re always interviewing. That's where the real fun of it is.”

Asking the Right Questions
Many interviewers prepare a list of questions before an interview, but this isn’t always the best approach, especially for feature material. When an interviewer works from a list of questions, the source may feel like they’re being given an oral exam. For investigative interviews, Lofflin works from a more traditional list of questions, following them almost like a script.

For feature articles, however, he often uses the following conversation starters:
  • “You're kidding?” Then the person says, “Oh no I'm not.” And off they go.
  • “I don’t understand that. Can you explain that to me?”
  • “What happens next?”
  • “Can you take me back to that moment? What were you wearing? What was the weather like? Who else was in the room?”

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