Eight Interviewing Techniques to Get the Best Sound, Stories

Elise Hu / NPR StateImpact

NPR Education Correspondents Larry Abramson and Claudio Sanchez giving us interviewing tips.

Hello from Indianapolis, where the StateImpact education reporters and editors have gathered for an NPR fly-in sponsored by the Lumina Foundation. There’s no shortage of wonky talk about the big issues in K-12 and higher education, but NPR veterans are also here to offer reporting guidance. Some takeaways from NPR education reporters Larry Abramson and Claudio Sanchez about conducting great interviews for your pieces:

1. Build Great Sources First
Spend time with teachers, administrators and students before you need them. It doesn’t hurt to do a positive story about education or a profile before you careen into a story that’s harder hitting.

2. Ask Questions Clearly So They’re Usable For Your Stories
Sometimes you’ll need the tape of yourself asking questions or dialoguing with the interviewee. So be aware that your questions could wind up on air and keep your back-and-forth direct and concise.

3. Get the Boss to Go Away
You’re less likely to get a strong interview with a teacher when the principal is around. Same goes for any domineering publicist who sits in on interviews. So try to make the interview setting as comfortable as possible for the subject by telling the boss that the setup isn’t going to work with him there. Rituals where minders tell you “you’re done now,” etc., aren’t helpful if you want or need to talk to more people. Always try to push for more time and an open setting.

4. Never Talk Down to Anyone

Not even to young students. Children have brains. Many are very articulate. Don’t baby-talk with them.

5. For Interviewing Kids, Talk With a Small Group
Students tend to bounce ideas off of one another, and ask questions for you of other students. So this can make for interesting sounds and information. Mic it with a boom. If you miss something, ask the student to start over again.

6. When Boggled Down with Jargon, Ask Bureaucrats/Experts to Speak in Plain English

Would the average person on the street “get” the complicated discussion? Get your subject to speak plain English. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it won’t make sense to listeners.

7. Be Curious
It’s your curiosity and interest in discovery that can drive a good interview. Preparation trumps improvisation in an interview, but ask the obvious questions that arise from your curiosity.

8. Buildup Before a Confrontation
During the interview, ask the subject to talk about his organization or give some background before you drop the more confrontational finding or discovery for which you need a response. You may still get a “no comment.”

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