Learning by Listening: The Art of the Interview

When I was fifteen, I decided that I wanted to explore a career in print journalism. My mom encouraged me to respond to a job advertisement in my local newspaper. The job was to be a stringer at that newspaper, a small weekly publication. With zero experience, I applied for and got the job.

What happened next was an almost three year-long crash course in journalism for which I will forever be grateful. It was scary to me, to think that my articles were going to be published when I had never formally learned how to structure one. And I’ll be the first to admit that my early articles were pretty awful. But what scared me the most was the interviews. I’ve always been a pretty shy person, so the thought of walking up to someone and asking them questions in a formal setting at that time was generally terrifying.

One of the first articles I wrote was a memorial to my kindergarten teacher who had recently passed away. Needless to say, it was an emotional article for me to start out with. I interviewed several people about how my teacher had touched their lives.

I vividly remember interviewing one of her family members over the phone. As the interview progressed, I grew more and more comfortable. Here was one person who had been affected by a much larger story; one more life that had been affected by cancer. At one point, I could tell that the person I was interviewing was crying on the other end of the phone. I started to tear up as well, and told them how she was my kindergarten teacher and about all the fond memories I had of her. In that moment, I felt connected to this person.

The point is that if you listen — just listen — you’re going to find the emotional side of the story. You’re going to find how people feel about things. How things have affected them personally. And once you have that, you have a story.

Listening is the easy part, and the part I love most about any interview. You sit back, you don’t talk about yourself at all, you don’t give your input. You make it all about them. Right then, they are the most important person in the world to you, and their story is all that matters. If you listen, if you let the pauses linger, then people will often open up to you and give you the heart of the story.

If you’ve never interviewed someone one-on-one, I encourage you to do so. It’s not very often that we have a conversation with someone that is so one-sided, where your own thoughts and opinions don’t matter. And to me, that’s humbling. In any social setting, I’d always rather sit back and observe rather than put myself in the center of attention. When I’m interviewing people, it’s my job to do just that.

I haven’t perfected the art of the interview by any means. I still cringe when I go back to my recordings and listen to how I worded questions or stumbled over my sentences. But with each interview, I learn something new. When someone rambles on about something that doesn’t relate to my article, I learn patience. When someone gives me insufficient responses, I learn how to craft follow-up questions on the spot. When someone skirts around my question, I learn to be assertive.

I’ve met so many incredible people and learned so many interesting things that I would have never known if it weren’t for my reporting assignments. And no matter how many mistakes I make, I know I want to pursue a career in journalism because it allows me to learn every day, whether I realize it or not.

In the words of Henry Luce: “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.”

With every interview, I’m getting closer.

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