What are some common interview mistakes

Where the devil is in the details

The level of an interview always reflects the level of the interviewer, not that of the interviewee, ”said top interviewer André Müller once. Let's see which level-lowerers, i.e. journalist mistakes, we find in our kind.

By Mario Müller-Dofel *

Experience from an interview workshop with (seasoned) journalists from a German editorial team. We start with an exchange about unsatisfactory interviews. Five representative quotes from the editors about the causes of bad interviews:

"... That was a stupid interviewee ..."
"... Inedible guy! ..."
"... She just stammered around. ... "
“… I asked myself why he gave the interview at all if he didn't want to say anything. ... "
“… Difficult, lady. ... "

Blame the interviewee alone - this is how many journalists react to unsatisfactory interviews. That is the first journalist mistake. Because it is often the interviewer's own fault. In the end, this was also acknowledged by the participants in the above-mentioned workshop. Before that, however, they had eight hours to shed light on causes other than those cited above.

Below for you, dear interviewers, is a summary of ten common mistakes that need to be fixed.

1. Low quality standards

Journalists do not regard any form of representation (and its development) as uncritically as the interview. No wonder that there are hardly any print or online editorial teams that have at least particularly important interviews conducted by particularly talented journalists (quite different on TV and radio). Instead, in most editorial offices, any journalist is allowed to interview any informant for any purpose, as long as he stays within his department fences. In retrospect, there is no question of whether a colleague would have conducted the interview better.

Why is the anyone-can-gossip attitude a journalist's mistake? The publicist Hans-Joachim Netzer was once quoted as follows: “The interview is the most difficult form of journalistic work ever. It requires precise thematic preparation, but then the greatest restraint of one's own knowledge. It requires good contacts, self-confidence and tact. But it also requires energy and a sense of purpose in conducting the conversation as well as adapting to the respective interlocutor, to the atmosphere and the situation. "

2. Lack of conversational skills

An interview is always a dialogue between two people with fears, vanities, interests and desires. Only if the journalist is aware of these influencing factors and, despite different interests, creates (and persists!) An atmosphere that encourages conversation, can he get the most out of his interview partners. Because the emotional level, the “discussion climate”, generally influences the quality of communication more than the interviewer's expertise. In other words: the greater the respondent's fear, tension, or antipathy, the worse the quality of their answers. (The same relationship applies to interviewers and their question quality.)

Why should many journalists lack interview skills? Because conversation is a predominantly psychological discipline, but journalists rarely deal with communication psychology. This too: a journalist's mistake. Remember: Of the ten requirements that Hans-Joachim Netzer lists in the above quote, nine relate to Not the technical level, but the emotional level. And the interview professional Sven Michaelsen, who is well connected in the industry, says: “A lot more good portrait and reportage writers come to mind than good interviewers.” (A book tip for conversation skills: Friedemann Schulz von Thun, 2014, “Talking to one another 1-4: Disruptions and clarifications. Styles, values ​​and personality development. The "inner team" and situation-appropriate communication. Questions and answers. ")

3. Non-transparent interview requests

“There is no second chance for the first impression” is a principle that also applies to journalistic interviews. All the more so in view of the distrust that journalists generally face. Interviewers convey the first impression of themselves with the interview request. If this leaves many questions unanswered (meaning important information such as the occasion, reason, time required, technical effort, form of publication or time of publication), the first impression is bad.

Why is a lack of background information problematic? For example because the main goal of the interview request is to build trust. After all, the addressee must first agree to the interview. The more questions the interviewer leaves open in the interview, the more ignorant the interviewee will decide whether to accept or reject it. The stupid thing about it: ignorance makes you feel insecure. And the more ignorant a respondent is, the more he tends to close himself off to the interviewer. Here is what makes a good interview request.

4. Egocentric preparation

Lots of journalists are preparing yourself technically well prepared for interviews, but completely sideline their interview partners. It would be better for the later result of the interview to include them from the start (usually only takes a few minutes, for example for a preliminary talk about the organization and expectation management).

Why should a little alterocentering be useful? Usually lead two factually and emotionally well-prepared interlocutor a satisfactory interview. But only one person is responsible for this: the journalist. The better he prepares his interlocutor for the interview in advance, the more willing to cooperate he will behave in the interview. If the interviewer neglects this duty, he leaves the quality of the interview to chance or to his interlocutor. When journalists wait until the question-and-answer situation to deal with any "relationship problems" (i.e. communication disorders), they are often too late. You can find out more about the best possible "quality reduction prevention" here.

5. Senseless secrecy

Most journalists prefer to send their interlocutors just two broad topics of conversation (if at all) than ten specific questions. Allegedly, according to the prevailing opinion, questions sent in advance limited the potential for surprises. In addition, the interview partner would lose spontaneity because he would hammer into himself phraseological answers beforehand (completely overestimated assumption, clear journalist's mistake!). These alleged disadvantages turn out to be wrong if the interviewer correctly understands the meaning and effect of lists of questions.

Why are pre-sent questions beneficial to journalists? The most important thing: Concrete questions enable interviewees to prepare specifically for journalistic needs, especially since hardly any interview partner is able to present all the data and facts that the journalist might be interested in offhand. (Let's not forget that most of the interviews Not are investigative, but should serve the easily understandable, clear transfer of knowledge.) If interviewees - most of them have little time - do not get a chance to prepare an interview, they will riot a lot in the conversation, answer abstractly, incorrectly or not at all. And: If you feel good because you are satisfied with the interviewer, you will always respond spontaneously in a good conversation atmosphere.

For journalists, questions that have been formulated in advance are also advantageous: they will find it easier to get them to the point in a conversation (a real problem, see point 9). Of course, journalists shouldn't all reveal your questions in advance. That too would be a journalist's mistake.

6. Persistent prejudices

Communication scientists have long since proven that the much-invoked objectivity in journalism is honorable, but a pipe dream. Journalists are just people - and people have prejudices. Let's name those who are particularly persistent in bringing their prejudices into interviews: opinion journalists.

Why are opinion journalists bad interviewers? For example, because they want to hear their own opinion confirmed and ask especially biased. They present themselves as judges on behalf of the audience, use their questions to express judgments about interviewees and do not accept any counter-arguments, however good they may be. But what is the point if the “accused” in return at least internally refuse the interview because they feel they have been treated unfairly? This, too, would be a serious mistake for journalists.

7. Misunderstood "preliminary skirmish"

Some journalists think that after they have welcomed their interview partner, any further "preliminary skirmish" is a waste of time - and forego a warm-up. With interviewees to whom one already has (trustworthy) access, this is usually okay, with others, however, a real one Loss.

Why is the warm-up phase decisive for the course of the conversation? After a good warm-up, journalists usually get more useful answers in a shorter interview time than in a longer conversation without "preliminary skirmishes". If you want to know more about internal resistance in interviewees, human icebergs and fast "melting methods", read the detailed article about it.

8. "Deadly" introductory questions

Quite a few journalists forget that it can be “fatal” for a conversation if they fall through the door straight away - especially if they have skipped a warm-up beforehand. In most cases this would be two journalists' mistakes at once. How this style can end can be read in the interview “Reconstruction of an expulsion”.

How do clever introductory questions breathe life into the respondent? With the introductory question, interviewers should neither provoke their interlocutors nor confront them with negative topics - provided they want to “open up” their counterpart instead of consciously risking a confrontational conversation with them. In order to open up the interview partner, the first one or two questions must be pleasant for the respondent, the journalist's choice of words must appear harmless and his tone must sound sympathetic. This increases the likelihood that the interviewee will feel encouraged to give an interesting answer, which in turn gives him self-confidence and a willingness to answer.

9. Badly worded follow-up questions

Interview lecturer Tim Farin has just written a much-read “Plea against multiple questions”, because poorly formulated questions are usually followed by unsatisfactory answers.

What are the most common question mistakes? The questions are too long - and bore the interviewee. They are too complicated - and confuse the interviewee. You sound aggressive - and annoy the interviewee. They are vague - and lead to vague answers. The questions contain false information - and embarrass the journalist. All common journalist mistakes!

10. Weak writing

Journalists often write down interviews in such a way that the interviewee does not recognize himself enough. Common reasons for this: The interviewer places individual statements in a changed context in terms of content, which is why the interviewee feels that they are out of context. The interviewer exchanges originally spoken words of the interviewee for synonyms that have completely different (inappropriate!) Meanings for the interviewee. And the journalist has prepared the interviewee completely for what he will do with the written version of the original conversation and for what reasons (see above, point 3). Pure journalist mistake!

Despite all justified criticism of the authorization procedures of some interview partners: It is always the journalist who changes the original conversation first, not the interviewee. Therefore, the journalist has a special responsibility in writing, which he sometimes does not live up to because he writes mainly in his own interest and ignores the constraints and interests of the interviewee. This would also be a journalist's mistake. (The same quote from many interviewees: “Journalists hear what they want to hear.” However, this can also happen unconsciously.) Even top interviewer Sven Michaelsen says: “I would not give an interview without the written assurance that I could proofread it. The reason is that there are interviewers who cannot do their trade. Nobody wants to look like a bummer because a journalist was not able to translate spoken language into written language. "


Of course, one or the other of the above errors can happen in the hectic production. If others were permanently dropped for this in the future, the quality of the interviews would increase.

* Mario Müller-Dofel is co-initiator of the knowledge portal “Everything about interviews”.