But, for fairness and accuracy, you and your readers are best served by quoting verbatim. This can be incredibly annoying when I ask a complicated question and the source says only, “Yup.” Getting them to speak in full sentences, and getting those words right, demands close attention while you are interviewing. Don’t be shy. When you get a “Yup,” say, “Could you elaborate a bit more on that?”
Interviewing tip: Don’t “talk shop”
While you are showing off your knowledge, the interview can devolve into jargon-filled, assumption-laden, technical quotes that do your readers no good. A good journalist is the stand-in for the reader’s curiosity and current lack of knowledge. Fortunately, I am blessed with vast resources of native ignorance, unspoiled by expertise or overly rapid comprehension. Get the source to talk to your readers.
Related interviewing tip: Don’t talk at all
If your source is on a roll and on topic, do not interrupt! If they end a sentence with a questioning lilt, just say “Mmm hmm.” If they pause, as we all do in conversation to give the other a chance to respond, say, “I understand” and then keep your mouth shut. It will create tension, but hang tough. They will start talking again, and in these moments of voluntarily divulged information you are much more likely to strike interview gold. Your subject has moved away from your preconceived questions, or even the bounds of ordinary discussion, and now is speaking their mind. The time to speak is when your source has meandered well off topic. This is your cue to both demonstrate that you have been listening and get them back on track.Focus on content that interests you and your readers. For example you could say something like, “You said earlier that, surprisingly, most elephants aren’t actually Republicans. What did you mean by that and is it based on a previous study or your own observation?”
Don’t Disagree or Debate
This will put you source on the defensive. This is an interview. Your mission is to get quotes, not to start or win an argument. If you have concern for a dissenting view, preface it with the phrase, “Playing devil’s advocate here, wouldn’t some people say” or “Is your view commonly shared by your colleagues or is it controversial?” Stay on their side. Go back to saying, “Mmm hmm.”
Interview Questions: You Don’t Know Best
Always have a set of prepared questions. These should be based on your initial story idea and a possible angle, but these questions should be strictly provisional. Your preconceived notions are a Procrustean bed for your source, and although they should be calculated to spark responses, it is unlikely they will follow the contours of the discussion. I can’t say this strongly enough: Listen! Listen to your source and be your reader’s curiosity. Generate questions on the fly that amplify the flow, and take your source to the next level of detail. Again this is the time you will strike interview gold. Don’t derail the flow with one of your prepared questions. If you don’t quite understand, that’s okay. Make a note and bide your time. When a natural pause comes, now is the time to use your notes. Parrot back an interesting line and ask what that means. “When you say . . . does that mean you disagree with nine out of 10 dentists and believe patients should chew gum with real sugar or . . . ?” Or, without starting a debate, ask how a previous statement connects with (or seemingly contradicts) something they said earlier. Show that you have been listening, and especially at the end, do engage in a little shop talk. This can be a chance to get to the next level for your own comprehension. You can translate for your readers later.
Always Listen With Your Writer’s Ear
Was that a complete sentence? Would that make an amazing pull quote? If I use that quote will I need to expand on that facet of the topic? Don’t hesitate to ask them to rephrase. This actually builds confidence that you are a professional utterly committed to getting their words right in usable sound bites. Make your source a collaborator in the writing process. “That’s very interesting but my readers may not understand. Is there a simpler way to put that for the layperson?” If you have to, come right out and ask your source to speak in complete sentences “so we can properly quote your thoughts in the article.” In my experience they appreciate the guidance and your professionalism in asking them to help you do a good job.
After the Interview
You will both be spent. You should both relax and smoke a cigarette. No, actually, now you will typically face questions from the source. “When will this be coming out?” If you have a rough idea, share that, but if you don’t know, don’t make promises. “Will I get a chance to see the article before it’s published?” Typically, this is not something you want to promise. If your publisher has fact checkers, mention that. If you want you can say, “I will definitely get back to you if there are areas that aren’t clear or need review for accuracy.” This must be a true statement, and often you can do this with segments that really do need verification. If you have to, you can say, “Unfortunately our editorial policy and deadline pressure don’t include a mechanism for sources to review completed article before publication. But we have had very few instances that required a printed retraction.” At least they know they’re not being singled out, that there is a formal mechanism for them to seek correction, and that it’s the publication calling the shots.
Now it’s your responsibility to make sure your source really is quoted fairly and accurately. Let’s go back to how you should have prepared to do that.
You May Be Unconsciously Misquoting a Source
When I see reporters energetically scribbling notes with a pen during an interview I have to snort. I doubt their ability, unless they know shorthand, to capture quotes verbatim. Your own syntax and vocabulary sneak in. I take notes but I also use a voice recorder, and I can’t tell you how many times my notes had something different than the actual quote. Try it. People have very idiosyncratic ways of putting things! Writing down the exact wording of some quotes can so go against the well-worn grain of my own syntax that it takes sometimes a double, or triple take.
Accurate Interview Quotes Require a Recorder
Dan Rather said, “The camera doesn’t blink.” Likewise, tape recorders don’t zone out or whatever the auditory equivalent of “blink” would be. A recording also gives you peace of mind. Yes, he or she really did say that. Doing controversial stories? Upload and retain a copy of the recording.
Tape Recorders Have Evolved
Once upon a time, the big, expensive Sony and later the Marantz recorders were marks of a pro, especially radio reporters. Now small is beautiful and a hallmark of recent technology. But don’t use your Fisher Price if you want to look professional. Test your equipment. Handling noise, background noise, or improper settings can render a recording useless. Print journalists and bloggers really just need enough quality to hear the voices clearly. I say “voices” because you will need to hear your questions clearly, too. Full disclosure, I’m an Amazon affiliate, but I’ve had fine success with the pricier Olympus DS-40 Digital Voice Recorder which also works for phone interviews using a fairly simple Telephone Recording Device. The newer Olympus Digital Voice Recorder DM-420 is cheaper. Whichever you choose, modern digital voice recorders have an amazing storage capacity, in the case of the DS-40 in HQ mode, 34 hours! This is adequate for a story interview to say the least, especially since you have to transcribe the interview!
Recording Interviews, the Downside
Tape recordings demand transcription. Ugh. Nothing slows me down more than transcription. Sometimes I think, “Oh, I’ll just listen to the tape and write down the good stuff.” That doesn’t really work. It actually saves time to buckle down and transcribe the whole thing. Bonus: you will find material you didn’t think was “good stuff” when you first started writing the article. In fact, a careful listen to the emphases of a source can and often should steer you to an angle you hadn’t considered. And now for the promised pay off.
An Amazing Trick to Transcribe an Interview
I invented a brilliant technique to get out of typing transcriptions. Others may have thought of it, but it was a eureka moment for me. The technique requires Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software.
Check out this article for how NaturallySpeaking works. I can wait. Oh good, you’re back. NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software (“you talk, it types”) has to be “trained” to a particular voice. That means can’t just play an interview with a stranger and get NaturallySpeaking to comprehend the words.
Here’s What You Do Instead
Fire up your word processor and NaturallySpeaking. Then, as you play back your interview into headphones or an earpiece, simply repeat verbatim every word of your interview subject. Because you have “trained” it, NaturallySpeaking picks up and understands the nuances of your voice. It takes a little practice to get down the timing but it’s amazing how quickly you can transcribe an interview, often as fast as the playback runs.
Has anyone else tried this trick? Leave me a comment!