15. Interview techniques

It’s not easy to get someone talking when they don’t want to, when they’re chatting but saying nothing or talking in veiled terms for fear of saying too much. Conducting an interview in a way that draws clear and precise information not only requires knowledge, but also, and above all, a bit of savoir-faire, skill and even cunning. In journalism, interviewing is an art.


  1. Create an atmosphere of trust

An interview is like a sports match. The interviewer is always starting in a position of inferiority because they are the one asking for something. To make the game friendly, the interviewee must be approached with care. Writing to them will make them feel more reassured than calling. It is essential to convince your interviewee that their witness account is precious and guarantee that nothing they say will be published without their consent. When I write to Mark Pesos for his reaction to my findings about the establishment of the Dosh Bank head office on a protected nature site, I’m trying to cajole him. I highlight the fact that, as the interviewer, I am giving him a platform to respond to the slurs about his methods that are widespread on the island…

  1. Make sure you hold all the cards

Interviews with elected representatives, civil servants, company directors and writers are not the same. But whoever your interviewee, an interview is only fruitful if you are well preparedI request an interview with Mark Pesos when I feel ready to confront him. I feel ready when I have gathered as much documentary data as possible on him, his friends, his enemies, and when I have a solid “interview guide”, i.e. a list of questions that are detailed and accurate enough to counter his distraction tactics and really challenge him…

  1. Choose the right strategy

There are three types of interview, all of which give different results.

A structured interview consists in posing very specific questions and refusing digressions and evasive answers. It is an aggressive method, effective in short formats such as “vox pops”: three questions, each with three five-line answers… We are not going to interview our well-known banker using a “vox pop”!

* An unstructured interview consists in asking a very open introductory question and then letting the interviewee answer however they like. This lax method is useful for discovering the personality of the interviewee when you don’t really know much about them, but rarely produces any information. If I just let Mark Pesos talk, of course he won’t tell me anything about how he obtained a permit to build his high-security building on a protected nature site.

* A semi-structured interview is the most suitable for journalism. It consists in alternating between questions that are open and closed, general and detailed. This alternating approach allows you to ask questions again, fosters conversation, creates an atmosphere of sharing or even cooperation. I will use this all-encompassing strategy with Mark Pesos. I’ll start with very general questions: “Why did you choose to move the head office of the Dosh Group to the island of Moray?” I’ll let him talk freely for a while. I won’t interrupt. By listening attentively and smiling, I will put him at ease. Then, while he’s talking, I’ll calmly interrupt him with specific questions backed up by references to prove my skills: “I was on Moray last week, I had breakfast with members of the National Office for Protected Areas and I’m told that you benefited from an exemption allowing you to build on the island… Is that true?” 

  1. Choose the right place

You cannot interview people just anywhereYou cannot interview Mark Pesos at the local pub. As the interviewer, you need to go to him. Avoid public places, especially bars and restaurants. The ambient noise is disruptive and the presence of other people witnessing the conversation may put your interviewee off. Choose a quiet, peaceful place, preferably an office or living room. Public places can be suitable when you’re chatting informally with secondary witnesses or informers, whose identity cannot be figured out by the public.

  1. Choose the right tone

An interview may be like a game, but it’s not a boxing match. It’s an ambiguous face-to-face meeting, but one in which each participant is trying to seduce the other. Aggression from the interviewer is counterproductive. Virulence will not give you interviewee reason to confide in you. The interviewee is not your enemy. It’s not about provoking, combatting or taking them down. It’s about creating an atmosphere of mutual respect in the time it takes to have a conversation. The right tone is neutral, tolerant and welcoming. I don’t necessarily share Mark Pesos’ ideas, but I recognise his right to express them freely and, if I feel the need to object, I do so courteously.

  1. Know how to ask your questions

Questions that are biased, ambiguous or unrelated to the subject will not put your interviewee at ease. The right way to interview involves asking clear, precise questions, in which each word is balanced, with a sequence that flows in a logical order around a central issue, and which show the interviewee, through their consistency and thoroughness, that you have a good understanding of the subject or the case that you are discussing. This is why the “interview guide” is so important. Creating this guide before your interview allows you to maintain control even if your interviewee has a tendency to skirt around the issue… If I question Mark Pesos on the investment that this high-security building represents, I need to have solid points for comparison, for example verified figures on the construction of the high-tech building that his rival, the banker Bill Bath, recently had built, otherwise my interviewee will not take me seriously.

  1. Ask the right questions

A good question, is clear, precise, intelligible, neutral, formulated in such a way that it is not leading, but meaningful enough that the answer brings the interviewer closer to the information they are seeking from the interviewee. This could be a secondary question. Asking the right secondary question at the right time requires in-depth knowledge of your subject. The interviewer achieves this through the progression of their questions, starting with the simplest and ending with the most complex secondary questions. I will have a good secondary question to ask Mark Pesos once he has confirmed that he benefited from an exemption allowing him to build on Moray: “The building of this new head office represents a significant investment for the Dosh Bank. What is the situation in terms of your employees? Are the redundancies announced shortly before you were taken hostage still on the agenda?” 

  1. Do not censor yourself

The right questions sometimes lead to evasion or refusal to answer. But don’t give up. You’re a “seeker of the truth” and, as such, it is your duty to ask again, politely, calmly, but clearly, at least once. If you do not get a better result, the interviewee’s refusal becomes a telling fact, one to report to your readers. I expect that Mark Pesos won’t answer my secondary question. If he said he wanted to cancel the announced redundancy plan, the Group’s shareholders would undoubtedly relieve him of his duties at the next general meeting. But if he refuses to answer, I will include that in my article…

  1. Transcribe, but don’t bend the truth

Recording an interview means the interviewer does not need to take notes continuously and gives the interviewee the guarantee that their words will not be distorted. But you can only record with the interviewee’s consent, and you must agree to stop the recording if the interviewee asks. You should also stop the recording yourself, out of politeness, at the slightest interruption to your conversation, such as a telephone call. Recording does not mean you do not need to take any notes. As the discussion flows, note down in particular things that will not appear on the recording: smiles, grimaces, hesitations, tics, etc. At the end of the interview, discuss whether any statements need to be erased upon transcription.

  1. Conclude with clarity

Even if all the parameters have been agreed in advance, the end of the interview is also the time for the interviewer to confirm to the interviewee just how their words will be used, to avoid any misunderstanding: full publication as a set of questions and answers, partial publication as free extracts or extracts chosen by mutual agreement, publication with right to review, etc. It’s the interviewer’s choice, provided they are fully transparent with the interviewee. My own deal with Mark Pesos will, as usual, be entirely clear: he allows me to record everything he says and to publish his words as I wish… but reserves the right to refute them. It’s his word against mine, it seems a fair compromise.