Find interviewing tough? Veteran British journalist Simon Hattenstone shares how to elicit (and share) stories

Ask any writer (whether journalist, copywriter, content writer or other) how they experience interviewing, and, if they’re honest, many will express deep ambivalence or even distaste for the process. Whether an issue with  approaching an interviewee, conducting an in-person or online meeting, or trying to anticipate how a story will unfold,  interviewing is usually anything but easy—for me, included.

Over the years, I’ve sought out explications and advice for the process, such as in books like Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists (by Mike Wallace and Beth Knobel,  2010). But it (and they) barely broach the subject. anxiety and interview

Members of my writers’ group have bemoaned everything from the anxiety as to whether recording devices will work (in pre-Covid interviews) to the agony of transcribing the recordings themselves, as they try to fill the gaps in the messy notes they’ve scrawled during the intensive time of the interview. Even when the interview is over,  writers can’t celebrate, as much work remains to be done.

So imagine the excitement last January, when I received an email promoting an interviewing “masterclass” by Simon Hattenstone, a 30-year veteran features writer for arguably the world’s best English language newspaper, The Guardian.

With more than 1,235 articles archived on The Guardian’s website and having interviewed everyone from rapper Snoop Dogg to Boris Johnson, Sir Desmond Tutu, Greta Thunberg, footballer Marcus Rashford and many in-between, Hattenstone can elicit good stories of folk from any conceivable walk of life. While he has written about many celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie, he has found the most meaningful work in speaking with the friends of homeless people who have died on Britain’s streets.

Subscribing to the “masterclass” was a “win-win” opportunity: while listening to Hattenstone’s insights, I could indirectly support a newspaper that has consciously remained free to readers across the globe. Profits made from  such online classes that feature experts from all fields of inquiry enable the newspaper to stay accessible. Newspapers have large expense sheets, beyond what advertising brings in. 

These “masterclasses” are wildly successful online events: Hattenstone drew some 700 listeners to the call, which included a breakout-room application and an extensive Q&A that followed. In all, the class lasted some two hours and could easily have run longer.

Hattenstone was gritty, funny and insightful. Using often salty, down-to-earth language (‘wanker,” “rubbish, ” and some other, less polite, terms ), he shared genuine tips and insights garnered by his 30 years in the business. Here are some of the best:

Interviewers, he said, need to be aware of their “intuition,” to be interested—even “nosy”—about others, and most of all,  to be able to “communicate.” We are not supposed to work out philosophical arguments, as “huge brains” (academics) might try to do. We should not try to “make friends,” with our interviewees, as well, but instead to combine respect, background knowledge (preparation) and empathy with the ability to compose a narrative.

Interviewing is hard, Hattenstone says, because writers must impose a structure, a story, over the fragments of an interviewee’s life, that do not reach us in story format.

He comments that interviewers can learn old and new things, touch people, inform and entertain them, while also making the lives of our interviewees better—by being understanding and respectful of them. We also inform the reading public who consume the stories.

Interviewing—to find out new things that haven’t already been said—”is not a casual job,” Hattenstone says, and “it’s not about making friends, at all!”

He referred to different approaches to interviewing, including these:

  1.  We can be interrogators, focused on potentially hard-hitting questions, especially if we know the subject is being dishonest or corrupt;
  2.  We can be performers, who aim to “get something out of the interview” by heavily managing our exchange with the interviewee;
  3.  We can be sharers—by offering something relevant about ourselves to establish a feeling of safety and empathy. But in such cases the interviewer should share only briefly, so as not to intrude too much on the interview;
  4.  Hattenstone advises that “interviewing is like speed-dating, you can be hard, fair, make light fun of someone, but . . .  don’t shit on them or be unfair.”
  5. If we encounter a problematic story (e.g. an interviewee with a history of abuse, etc.), it’s “not the end of the world to keep quiet about them,” he says. “Your trust may allow you to tell their story later.” Often, several-stage interviews can reveal a more complex story over time, as Hattenstone found with the American student, Amanda Knox, who was convicted in Italy of the death of her roommate, Meredith Kercher (making international news in 2007).

As interviewers, we can ask good questions by looking at “news in brief” (NIBs) of any newspaper to find interesting interviewees and topics. Hattenstone says that looking for past media “cuts” (pieces) via Google is another great way to find subjects, as interviewees often speak less guardedly earlier in their careers. We can refer to these earlier clips, as he did when interviewing Dame Helen Mirren. Social media, he says, makes it much easier to trace interviewees’ earlier thinking.

We can find responsive subjects by finding “bored” actors waiting in dressing rooms for their plays to start in London’s West-End (and equivalents, elsewhere).

Hattenstone says that there are many ways an interviewer can “screw up” an interview: we may fail to research sufficiently a subject (He recommends that interviewers prepare roughly  30 questions and relevant material, knowing you’ll get only to one-third or fewer of them). The interviewer may fail to make sure their recording device still works (having two recording devices handy is wise, unless you know shorthand well). And interviewers shouldn’t worry about “looking cool” when nervousness is a sign of respect for the interviewee and for the process.

Recording an interview is essential, even though it can raise nerves for both parties, because the interviewer needs time to observe our interviewees, while they speak. If we obsessively trying to write down what they say, we’ll miss out on a lot, Hattenstone says.

When preparing, he suggests asking a good friend or colleague who knows our subject matter and can give us some background to work with. Such a friend should be “cheeky” and can encourage you to ask equally “cheeky” questions that haven’t been previously asked or answered. Overall, Hattenstone says: “research, research and research” your interviewees’ lives.

We can look for a particular issue to plumb, such as a crime they committed and/or a scandal that ensued.

Use some close-ended questions to establish the information, especially for politicians and people in public service (e.g. “Did you believe in X?”)

When writing for the news, ask “what they did”: when writing for features, ask “Why it mattered,” the story around the story.

Hattenstone says the most important questions are “What do you mean and how?”

He says never to worry about looking uncool or knowledgeable on a topic. It doesn’t matter if you read your own questions, or  pause, saying, “I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten myself. I just need a moment.” Simply put, allow for some painful silences. What comes from them are often the best moments of any interview.

If your interviewee  bursts into tears, just “let them go through it and allow their silence. Don’t try to comfort them,” he says.

If our interviewee’s field of knowledge is not transparent, it’s fine to say “I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it. Tell it to me in baby language.”

If we meet a resistant subject and things “go badly,” ask “Why do you dislike interviews,” “Are you OK,” and “Do you want to talk about something else?”

If an interviewee asks to keep something off-the-record, don’t betray that trust by telling it. But we can try to persuade them to let us include it in the interview.

Don’t stick to a script too closely, as often the most interesting insight will rise from digressions, Hattenstone adds.

Be a good listener and be aware that we may have to do a cross-examination. “If you tell a slanted story,” Hattenstone says, “you’ll get hammered.” For example, he would ask an alleged criminal “If you’re not guilty, why did you confess to something you didn’t do? People think you’re involved . . . .”

He says that the “easiest way to get a story is to ask someone about something else.” Try to get any resistant interviewee to complain about politicians or to say something negative about current events.

But don’t try to settle a dispute (as an arbitrator would), he adds.

It can be helpful just to let our interviewees talk. Sometimes the only way to bring yourself in, especially if you’re interviewing famous people, is to highlight with incredulity something that they’ve said. Like, “What do you mean?” or “How so?” Or “Seriously?”

Hattenstone emphasizes that we should observe our interviewees closely: if we don’t tend to notice things such as the way they’re dressed, how their hair is cut, how they interact with the waiter at your table, etc., we’ll lose valuable information for our stories. If they have a scar or noticeable feature, ask them about it, because some of their life story will inhere in it.

Ask them what the most important story is, in their life? If the interviewee distracts us from observing them, ask them to describe something themselves, such as the clothes they’re wearing that day. This process will allow us to observe them observing themselves. Then observe as we ask our interviewees to describe their work and what they’re contributing to their fields.

ALWAYS check your facts, Hattenstone also urged. We may have to call or consult someone to verify facts. If we find a quotation is inaccurate, no matter how quotable it may be, he urges, leave it out! If we know that we’ve being deliberately lied to,  point that out as part of the article.

Anecdotes do not make good print journalism: if our interviewees tend to use them, he says, “hurry them along, especially if you’ve heard the stories before and if they take a lot of time to share.”

When it comes to pitching articles, Hattenstone says, we should keep our emails short and use bullet points.  We should include roughly five links to relevant online sources. Similarly, he says, we should ask questions only the interviewee can answer and say as part of our questioning: “Only you can answer this . . .” Then leave the pitch for one to two weeks before following up:  Hattenstone says a good commissioning editor will take the time to consider a strong pitch, however busy they may be.

He also advised to “be thick-skinned in journalism, generally, and especially when pitching story ideas.” What seems like a brilliant idea or story concept to you may not seem so to a newspaper editor.

Even with the unfavourable exchange on the Canadian dollar and despite some technical glitches, The Guardians “masterclass” on interviewing, facilitated by Simon Hattenstone, was filled with valuable insights.  Have the above highlights inspired you to adjust your interviewing practices? Do the above comments make interviewing seem a more reasonable process?

Please write in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Meantime, sign up for invitations to other masterclasses on The Guardian newspaper, to learn more from some of the world’s best thinkers and doers.