How to Ask Questions That Get Honest Answers

Working as a news reporter for the past four years, I’ve learned a lot of valuable techniques for getting the best responses in an interview.

Of course no two interviews are going to be the same because no two people are the same. A method that gets the best answers from a philanthropist may not be the same for a business executive.

But here are seven universal tips that will help you get the most honest answers to your questions.

  1. Introduce yourself. Tell the interviewee your full name, where you’re from and why you’re calling. Give as much information as possible before you get started to make them feel familiar with you.
  2. Cut the small talk. If it’s cocktail hour at the local country club, light talk about the weather, books and movies is fine, but it doesn’t do a whole lot when you’re trying to get real answers. A better way to cut to the chase and lighten the conversation at the same time is to…
  3. Talk about yourself. It may seem counterproductive to chat about yourself when you’re trying to get answers. But I’ve found that interview subjects become much more comfortable chatting at length with someone they like. And they can’t like you if they don’t know anything about you. If the subject touches on a topic you want him to expand on, mentioning your own experiences means you dwell on that topic longer. It’s much easier to talk at length about a subject when the person knows you have a mutual understanding of it.
  4. Ask questions on your first call. For some people, scheduling an interview in advance is necessary. Alberto Gonzales isn’t going to accept an informal chat with any reporters (and even if he did, he probably wouldn’t remember any answers). But in many cases, the element of surprise is your friend. You’ll run into a number of barriers like secretaries and public relations folk. But if you manage to get through to your subject on the first call, start firing off questions. You’re more likely to get good answers because the interviewee didn’t have time to prepare.
  5. Request as much contact info as possible. A way around the PR barrier is to get as many alternate means of contact as possible. Ask for the e-mail address, cell phone number, home phone number — take down whatever the person is willing to dish out. I can’t tell you how valuable it is to be able to reach someone on his mobile phone instead of waiting a day or two for him to respond to the office voice mail. This also gives you the ability to…
  6. Call at odd times. Hounding your subjects when they’re half-asleep at the beginning of the work day or at a time just after dinner can catch them when they’re at their least guarded. But never call past 9 p.m. I’ve had some sources get pretty pissed off when I’ve tried to sneak in some last-minute questions before I hand a story off to the nighttime editor.
  7. “What a coincidence seeing you here!” Some call it stalking. Reporters call it investigating. For the sources that are really hard to get to, chat it up with their secretaries, families or friends, and try to find out the person’s hangouts. If you happen to know he spends most weekends at the local bar, the surprise bump-in can yield some pretty juicy responses — especially if he’s been drinking the truth serum.

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