Lessons from Journalism: The Power of In-Person Interviews

lessons from journalism

Coach Mike was a little shy. Not with his athletes. He spoke gently to the children from the neighborhood who had nowhere else to go after school and as sternly as he needed to at the teens, twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings he coached for various pro and amateur boxing tournaments.

But he was a little shy around me, a reporter writing about his boxing club.

I spent a day in his gym, chatting with the woman who ran everything, observing a practice, interviewing a boxer or two and interviewing, of course, Coach Mike. He answered my questions readily enough, but he didn’t really expand. Coach Mike, a two-time Olympic coach, spoke like he felt uncomfortable, hesitant. Meanwhile, I was certain—certain!—he was not an uncomfortable, hesitant man.

When I got home, I emailed Christina, the club’s executive director, and asked if I could come to another practice: I wanted Coach Mike to wrap my hands. Boxers’ hands are wound in tape beneath their gloves. The tape helps protect all the little bones and fragile tendons in the hand.

As Mike wrapped my hands a few days later, he was different. It was like I’d managed to remove some sort of stopper. He found himself in his comfort zone, and his prior hesitancy disappeared. 

I could have written my story without that second interview, but it wouldn’t have been as good. The picture I’d have painted wouldn’t have had as much shading, and my color pallet would have been smaller.

This final tip in this Lesson from Journalism series is, perhaps, my favorite, because it’s the most fun:

Lesson No. 6: When you need to conduct research, interviews are superior. When possible, do so in-person. 

I first got into journalism because I liked to write, not because I liked to talk to people. In fact, I disliked talking to people I didn’t know. I couldn’t even pick up a phone to order a pizza. 

But somewhere between high school and collegiate journalism and professional freelancer, I fell in love with picking people’s brains, with this permission to be not just curious but downright nosy. 

Without the reason of writing, I’d have spent two days with an old order Amish family. The daughters tried on my sunglasses, and they laughed at me when I put on one daughter’s bonnet upside down (I wish I could say I did this to make them giggle, but I seriously thought I was doing it right). Their eight-year-old brother chucked a tomato at me and hit me on the buttcheek. I drove a buggy. 

Without the reason of writing, I’d never have gotten to interview Caroll Spinney, voice of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. His speaking voice sounded like Big Bird, only slightly deeper. 

Without the reason of writing, I’d never have found myself at a graveside birthday party for a child who’d had a genetic disorder. I would never have experienced how a parent can clutch to any details that connect them to a daughter they know they have limited time with. Like how she used to stare at trees, follow them with her eyes, so that after she died, Mom and Dad insisted she be buried beneath one of the biggest trees in the cemetery.  

Writing is about details, and nine times out of ten, the best detail you’ll find in an interview is something you couldn’t ever predict. Without sitting down to dinner with the Amish family, shaking Spinney’s hand, or standing there while family members release birthday balloons into a sunny sky, you miss out on the details that will make your prose pulse, that will give it a heartbeat.

If you’ve never conducted an interview and the prospect makes you nervous, practice. Ask a friend if you can pick their brain. ID a sample story topic, and then prepare for the interview: Research your friend as if you’ve never met them, to gather background information to help you craft your questions. Schedule some sort of event you can attend together. Talk, take notes, and observe. 

I’ve interviewed everyone from an anthropologist to a retired long-term care facility nurse for my novels, an evolutionary psychologist to an at-home winemaker. And every one of those conversations informed my scenes in a way that Google never could.