How the World’s Best Journalists Bring Interviews to Life

Listen and watch attentively. Studying the topics and people helps the conversation flow more naturally (unless you’re Larry King). Ask relevant questions Questions provide the substance of an interview. Image source: U.S. Department of Defense, Public Domain While an investigative journalist must ask cutting questions that dig into important issues, content marketers may be better served by taking the Larry King approach: short, simple, and unassuming questions. King uses the kind of simple questions infrequently asked of his guests. Many of these provide opportunities for guests to share an introspective look at their work, which makes for more compelling material. Many times, you won’t elicit the best response with the initial question. You’ll need to ask follow-up questions. People don’t want to read a dry back-and-forth conversation between two people; they want to visualize the setting in their heads, as if they were sitting with in the room. “You are responsible for the story delivered to the audience,” says Acunzo.

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At the ripe age of 28, after years of performing odd jobs at a small radio station, Larry King found his first job interviewing people on the radio.

But he wasn’t sitting in front of that famous globe backdrop or interviewing world leaders as he would do later on CNN. He was sitting in Pumpernik’s, a Jewish deli in Miami, interviewing whoever happened to have walk through the door.

His guests were waiters, tourists, and a plumber with whom he had a 45-minute conversation.

King has gone on to conduct over 30,000 interviews across his 60-year career. He built a legacy by asking questions and letting his guests respond. He’s not renowned for his oratory skills, his writing, or his investigative chops. He’s known simply for his ability to ask and listen.

Sounds simple in theory, but it’s extraordinarily difficult in practice.

Interviews with sources should play a central role in any content marketing strategy, but there’s no sugarcoating it: mastering this skill is a difficult thing to do.

Why interviews matter

One of the first things to go in a world of churning more content more quickly is quotes from sources to support the content’s thesis. Too many content marketers rely on their own opinions and experience. They likely have trouble sustaining an audience because they provide no diversity of perspective, no point-counterpoint model to establish authority.

Want proof? Look no further than media that have lasted the test of time. You’d be hard-pressed to find an article in Esquire or Rolling Stone that didn’t contain quotes from an interview subject. It’s basic journalism. Some of the most-celebrated magazine articles of all time are profiles of compelling characters whom the writer spent hours interviewing and observing.

In the age of content snippets, this type of journalistic writing can feel absent from brand publishers.

But it shouldn’t be.

“It’s fine to assume that you are the subject-matter expert for a given piece, but even then, your audience gets a more diverse, more informed piece when you talk to actual sources,” says Jay Acunzo, founder of Unthinkable Media. “The reading experience is richer, and the information is much more well-rounded.”

Interviewing sources is a tricky skill to pick up, though. The best way to learn is through repetition, but it sure helps to have some advice. And for that, it’s best to look to those who have been doing this kind of work for decades.

4 principles of interviews

Stephen D. Isaacs, a prominent journalist and professor at Columbia University, laid out Four Principles of Interviews in his teaching:

  1. Prepare carefully, familiarizing yourself with as much background as possible.
  2. Establish a relationship with the source conducive to obtaining information.
  3. Ask questions relevant to the source that induce the source to talk.
  4. Listen and watch attentively.

You can see echoes of each of these principles in every legendary journalist, from Larry King to Lester Holt.

Let’s dive into each principle and see what some renowned print, radio, and television journalists say about applying them to interviews.

Prepare carefully

American Public Media’s Marketplace has a challenging task: explaining complex economic issues to everyday Americans.

You can’t do that unless you prepare.

“Rule No. 1 for me is preparation. Know everything you can – or everything you have time to study – about what or who the subject of the interview is,” says host Kai Ryssdal. “From there everything just sort of happens.”

Being well versed on the topic lets you ask more intelligent questions that cut to the heart of the issue rather than pose basic questions that elicit answers readers could find anywhere. Knowing your facts also helps when an interview subject tries to dodge a question or states a falsehood.


Image source: Photo source: LynnGilbert5 (Wikipedia Commons), CC BY-SA 3.0

Prep work should involve studying not only the interview topic but the interviewee.

Barbara Walters, another interview virtuoso, never cuts corners when it comes to research.

“I do so much homework, I know more about the person than he or she does about himself,” the career journalist says.

Surprisingly, King takes the opposite approach. Check out this tidbit from a 1980 People Magazine profile:

Remarkably, however, he never prepares for a guest. ‘This way the audience and I can learn together,’ he explains. ‘I never ask a question when I know the answer.’

While certainly not a best practice, King taps into an important factor that makes interviews compelling…