Talking to scientists used to make Ling Xin nervous. Now a physics and astronomy writer at the South China Morning Post, Xin says she fumbled some early interviews, asking “really, really random questions.” At times she’d find that her notes were full of irrelevant information she couldn’t use. “Sometimes after the interview, you realize you didn’t get much out of it,” she recalls.
For me, this experience is all too familiar. My very first editor told me to think up 10 questions in advance—and over time that strategy spiraled into generating 20 to 30 questions before every interview. More had to be better, right? I thought. I would read relevant studies and previous media coverage and write down every question I could think of—some broad, others obsessively specific. Thinking up questions was easy because there was so much I didn’t know, but I was unsure which questions would best serve my story, or how to phrase them effectively. The whole process felt like a catch-22: You don’t know what a person has to say until you speak with them, so how do you know what to ask? During interviews, I often felt like I was groping for information rather than systematically eliciting it.
I eventually figured out that it is possible to prepare methodically and glean the best possible material from interviews—including some of those million-dollar quotes we long for. My aha recognition was that asking questions happens in two distinct phases—before and during the interview. Your prepared questions should be expansive and not overly specific. Things like: “Did you encounter any obstacles while conducting this research?” and not, “What is the name of the enzyme that starts the reaction?” Craft one question for each aspect of the story and keep them broad so your source isn’t boxed in and can share whatever they think matters most. To develop these questions, you don’t need to know what your source is going to say—just the key topics you want them to address.
Once the interview gets started, your source will provide information, context, and even entire aspects of the story that are new to you. That’s when you begin to improvise follow-up questions to zero in on the most intriguing and relevant things—to make sure you understand, and to elicit quotes and details to enrich your story.
Let the Story Shape Your Questions
Nearly everyone I spoke with goes into an interview with just a handful of questions: one or two essentials, and a few others on the wish list. “There’s always priorities of, these are the things I know I need to ask, and these are the things that I’d love to be able to get to, maybe because they would add color to a story,” says Zahra Hirji of Bloomberg News.
Some journalists don’t always feel the need to write these questions down. They simply decide on the main topic areas they want to discuss and let the questions arise organically from the dialogue. Others print out or jot down their questions and keep them at their elbow. Xin says her list becomes a handy script when she comes across a reticent scientist. And if a loquacious source goes on a tangent, asking one of your prepared questions can bring the conversation back on track.
If you’re new to the topic you’re covering, read up on it so that you can infuse context into your prepared questions, which will help you establish a rapport. “If you understand the subject a little bit … the scientists appreciate that, and that helps establish some connection,” says freelance science journalist and author Anil Ananthaswamy.
But more important than learning everything you can about the topic, focus on understanding your own story. As soon as Jeff Tollefson, a senior correspondent at Nature, gets an assignment, he says he likes to “imagine what the structure of the story is going to be.” That helps him figure out what kinds of sources to approach and which questions to ask—even before he’s decided on the actual people he’ll interview.
Just like stories themselves, interviews should proceed logically—moving from an exploration of the issue at hand to causes and context, impacts, critiques or controversies, and next steps.
For feature stories, Tollefson says the same five basic questions tend to apply: What’s the news? How did we get here? What precisely is happening? Why does it matter? What’s next? “It’s like architecture,” he says. “They are the foundation. You can then build up or go gothic or modern or do whatever you want with whatever materials are available, depending on time and resources.”
Reporters working outside standard news or short feature formats will introduce other kinds of questions. If your story will offer practical advice, you might craft a question in that vein, something like, “Are there tips people should follow to get the most reliable results from an at-home DNA test?” If you need to recreate a vivid scene to draw readers into a narrative, you might ask a researcher to describe an experience they had in the field. If you’re covering a new study, you’ll ask things like, “Could you please summarize the findings for me in plain English?” and “How did you go about doing this study?”
Just like stories themselves, interviews should proceed logically—moving from an exploration of the issue at hand to causes and context, impacts, critiques or controversies, and next steps. Try to organize your prepared questions accordingly. And keep them simple. I used to ask overcomplicated questions, such as this one I prepared years ago: “In your study, what sorts of behaviors did you observe in the rhesus monkeys whose mothers had been injected with IgG from the mothers of autistic children and how were they similar to the behaviors of autistic children?” Yikes! The researcher was understandably baffled. In retrospect I would rephrase that as: “I found the rhesus monkey study intriguing. What do you think it suggests about the source of autistic behaviors?”
One of Hirji’s favorite questions is simply: “Why is everyone talking about this?” “You don’t want to spend so much time trying to sound smart about something,” she says, “when actually you just need to ask it in the [most plain], stripped-down way.”
When preparing questions, don’t forget to include ones likely to elicit compelling quotes. Tollefson usually has one or two that he lobs repeatedly at various sources “hoping somebody will hit it out of the park,” he says. These questions probe for meaning, emotion, and perspective, along the lines of, “Why is this important?” “How do you feel about this?” “What do you hope will happen next?”
Craft Your First Question with Care
Give special thought to the first question you pose. You may be tempted to start an interview slow and build up to the important questions. Don’t. Try crafting a starter question that helps the source warm up to the conversation, but make it count. You never know when an interview may get cut off unexpectedly, Hirji says.
For a feature story interview, Xin’s generic opener is often some version of, “Why is this thing important?” or “Why did you want to study this in the first place?” She says these simple questions often transform a source into a storyteller. “Sometimes they will just lay out, as a whole landscape, the big picture for you,” she says.
Everyone says an interview should feel like a conversation, and that’s true. But it’s a guided conversation, and your angle provides the guardrails.
Another way to begin is to ask a source to explain the central concept, even if you think you already know the answer—e.g., “What is internalized ageism and how does it develop?” “Sometimes they just surprise you with additional details that you would never have known if you hadn’t asked what was a seemingly obvious question,” Ananthaswamy says.
You could even start off by not asking a question at all, or, rather, backing into one. Ananthaswamy, who writes about heady topics such as quantum theory and hyperdimensional computing, sometimes simply recalls for the source what he previously shared by email about his story topic, to get them talking. “If you’ve laid out the larger context of the story or research, then that kind of gives you an opening to say, ‘OK, where do you fit into this?’”
When reporting on deadline, Hirji has a much more pointed approach. She starts by asking her sources: What do we know about the situation? From there she goes to: What don’t we know, and how are we trying to find out? For example, when Hirji was preparing to talk with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials and emergency responders after a toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, she says, “you’re getting their assessment of, ‘Where were you? When did you get there? … What kind of testing were you doing?’” She then shared what she’d been told with independent experts to get their analysis and learn whether they thought different strategies were called for.
If Hirji knows she’ll have just a few minutes with a person in power, she hones one or two central questions, often in consultation with her editors. She makes sure it’s neutral but clear, hard to wriggle out of, and likely to yield valuable information.
Use Your Angle to Stay on Track
Everyone says an interview should feel like a conversation, and that’s true. But it’s a guided conversation, and your angle provides the guardrails. “When you don’t have an obvious idea in your mind and you’re interviewing people, you ask questions that [don’t] build on each other,” Egyptian science journalist Rehab Abdalmohsen says. “It’s like when you don’t have a target at the end, so you go right and you go left, and you’re not walking on a straight line.”
An interview is a process of discovery, and the best material will sometimes be stuff you had no clue about before the conversation began.
All effective questions center around your angle, even if at the start of your reporting that angle might still be a work in progress. “If you have a theory, throw it at people and see what they think,” Tollefson says. Ask sources, “Is it fair to say X?” he suggests, or, “I’ve been told this. Do you agree?” You may find that your working theory pans out and your angle holds. Or, conversely, the answers to these questions could mean you need to shift the story’s focus.
In order to stay flexible enough to allow the most accurate angle to emerge, try to ask questions as neutrally as possible. It’s a form of mental discipline to seek information in a way that does not anticipate what you expect to hear. For example, let’s say you’re working on a story about an experimental therapy that made people sick. You might be tempted to ask patients, “Did the doctors tell you the treatment could be dangerous?” and “How did it make you sick?” But less judgmental wording would be, “What did the doctors tell you about the treatment?” and “Can you tell me what happened after you received it?” Neutral questions encourage sources to speak more freely because they see you don’t have a predetermined story in mind. You can follow up with more directed questions after they begin to share their experience.
Taking a diplomatic approach is especially helpful for investigative stories, when you might be speaking with reluctant sources, Abdalmohsen says. “I always make sure not to say it in a very confrontational way, as if it’s an accusation.” Instead, she’ll frame a probing question by referring to a report or other evidence and then ask the source to respond.
Improvise Follow-Up Questions to Go Deeper
No matter how carefully you craft your prepared questions, when the conversation starts you need to be ready to come up with questions on the fly. An interview is a process of discovery, and the best material will sometimes be stuff you had no clue about before the conversation began. “Sometimes you get your best quote or your best facts from a question that wasn’t prepared,” Hirji says. As such, she recommends “being ready in the moment to really pay attention so that you can ask follow-up questions because you’re going to learn a lot during that interview.”
When a source says something that feels super relevant, ask follow-ups to elicit information that will help you crystalize the idea for your audience. Typical follow-up questions include: “Can you think of a specific example?” “Can you explain a bit how that works?” “Do you have an analogy you use to explain this?” or simply “Tell me more.” “You have to be nimble enough to follow the person as they’re revealing things and push them in certain ways,” Ananthaswamy says.
Some of the best material often comes at the end of an interview, after you’ve developed a rapport with your source.
As you ask for examples and clarifications, your questions will become narrower and more particular, in contrast to your broad prepared questions. But make sure you don’t fall down any unnecessary rabbit holes. Before voicing a follow-up question, ask yourself, Am I just satisfying my own curiosity, or does this question truly serve my story? When a source starts to get technical, don’t try to understand everything. Let some of the jargon fly over your head.
Also ask yourself: Will I have room for this information? If the story is destined to be relatively short, you’ll be wasting everyone’s time with questions that go too deep or too far afield—there just won’t be room for all that information. For example, you don’t want to ask things like “Why did you use this method to extract the DNA?” or “Why did you recruit patients at Cleveland Clinic as opposed to another hospital?” unless you know that your story is going to go into this level of detail on those topics. “The trick is to condense and figure out what you really need to put into the story, because most of what you learn simply won’t fit,” Tollefson says.
Some of the best material often comes at the end of an interview, after you’ve developed a rapport with your source. Abdalmohsen told me about a scientist she spoke with who started off all business as they discussed her work on a virus that affects crops. But by the end of the conversation, the scientist had shared some of her personal journey and how sexism had affected her career. In fact, some reporters intentionally reserve their most delicate question for that final slot, like a poker player holding a surprise hand, slipping it in as an apparent afterthought: “Oh, just one more thing …”
Skillfully executing suave techniques like this comes with time. Abdalmohsen recalls sitting at conferences as a novice and marveling as other journalists asked insightful questions she felt she could never have thought of. “I wanted to reach to this point where I can stand up and say a really good question,” she recalls. Ultimately, the way to become a strong interviewer is to dive in and do it, she says. “You need to experience a lot of situations and do a lot of interviews, and then you will get the feeling of it.”
Emily Laber-Warren heads the health and science reporting program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. She writes about psychology, the environment, and social issues for The Washington Post, Undark, Newsweek, The New York Times, and other publications. She’s the co-creator of The Open Notebook’s series of Science Journalism Master Classes. Follow her on Twitter @elaberwarren.