Conducting Interviews that Matter

“The real interview is in the conversation.”

Hey, ya’ll! It’s been a busy past two weeks, but I’m happy to report that I was able to make time for two events. The first event will be the focus of this blog. Last week, I watched a great free live webinar from Poynter, called “Conducting Interviews That Matter” with NPR host Joshua Johnson.

(Quick side note: I loved the interface of the webinar, which attendees accessed via Adobe Connect. I liked that we could leave comments, use emoticons to react to the webinar, and flag the host about any technical difficulties or audio issues.)

Now, to the good stuff: This webinar was led by Alanna Dvorak, an interactive learning producer at NewsU. For those familiar with NPR’s show “1A.” host Joshua Johnson was the guest speaker. On 1A, he’ll invite guests on his show to have a conversation and debate about “a changing America.”

Remember: If you love these notes, #PayItForward and share them with a friend (or two).

Thursday, April 25, 2019 — Online

“Conducting Interviews That Matter”


Alanna Dvorak, Interactive Learning Producer at Poynter’s News University (@adReportsSports)

Guest Speaker:

Joshua Johnson, 1A Host from WAMU 88.5 and NPR (@jejohnson322)


Background on “1A” — The show launched on January 2, 2017 after the 2016 election. The goal was to be a “national mirror.”

Q: How do you prepare for discussions outside of your expertise?

  • Do your homework.

    • Screen your guests

    • Gather pre-interview notes from producers

    • Ask interview subjects to recommend sections of their book to read that might be helpful for the conversation

    • Read and watch any material your guest appears in

  • Have your storytelling elements together

  • Tell the story within the interview. This will help guide your listeners

  • “The most artful and important part is to prepare for the conversation itself.”

Q: How do you elicit deeper responses from your guests?

  • Do your homework (!!!)

    • During the screening and pre-interview, try to see the scope of the guest’s knowledge to see if they’d be a good fit in the first place

  • Don’t talk.

    • “The best way to elicit a deep response is to not talk.”

    • Mike Wallace wouldn’t talk during his interviews, because silence is uncomfortable and often times the silence alone will get people to talk and say things you’d never expect.

  • Ask.

    • Figure out how to ask your question in a way that will get the response you’re looking for.

    • “You have not, because you ask not.” (Bible Verse / James 4:3)

    • Ask your guest to tell you a story. This technique is especially helpful when interviewing a child. Try to guide them.

      • Say things like “And then what happened?” and “Paint me a picture” and “Talk about the moment you…”

      • Use open-ended questions

      • Set up the story for your guest

Q: How do you get a guest to wrap up their response?

  • Interrupt.

    • “The opposite of talking is not listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.”—Fran Lebowitz

Q: How do you deal with challenging, combative or tight-lipped guests?

  • Shut it down.

    • If a guest is rude, Johnson says he puts a stop to it immediately

    • It’s the host’s job to play referee

  • Keep it going.

    • If a debate is positive, consider not stopping it, because the flow of the debate is the story

  • Intense vs. Challenging: Know the difference!

    • Intensity is good. Sometimes it’s vital

    • A challenging person might go off on a tangent about talking points or might be hard to wrangle

  • Ask very short questions.

    • Johnson says his general rule is: short questions = long answers

    • “The more words you give them, the more they have to hide behind.”

    • “Your question is a path and the more clauses you give, the more paths you give.”

Q: How do you push a guest to talk about a topic they don’t want to talk about?

  • Don’t be pushy.

    • Try NOT to push them, if you can help it

    • Johnson says he might couch the question if it is uncomfortable

    • Using a sweet tone when asking a difficult question can go a long way

  • Be convincing.

    • Convince your guest to tell you

    • Walk them through the difficult topic and make it feel safe for them to tell you.

  • Sometimes you have to push.

    • Example: Johnson’s interview with Wesley Snipes. In this scenario, Johnson had to keep pushing Snipes to ask about the time he did in jail and when Snipes kept trying to talk about his book he was promoting, Johnson finally approached it from a fan perspective, saying: “I was a huge fan and you have tons of fans who deserve an explanation, because we missed you after we left.” (not a direct quote)

    • Give them a compelling reason

    • If you do force them, hold them to it

    • Remember: No comment is still a comment. It is a valid answer and sometimes you just have to let it go

    • Johnson says he’s not worried about losing a guest because he pushed: “Good. Maybe they should be scared.”

Q: When is it appropriate to interject during a conversation?


Q: When is it ok to use comedy in a segment?

  • Johnson is not in favor of comedy. Humor is fine in a news project. An off-handed remark is fine, but it should feel conversational.

  • Example: “Infinity War had the most important snap since West Side Story.” (Johnson said this during his show.

  • You’re a journalist, not a comedian. You can write news, opinion, etc., but don’t try to be funny. Humor that occurs naturally is fine.

Q: How much of yourself as a person do you bring to your work as a journalist?

  • “All of me,” Johnson says. “I can’t do anything else.”

  • You are always present 100%. You choose to acknowledge whats germane to the conversation.

  • Try not to do it unless it’s journalistically helpful.

  • Do it sparingly.

  • Johnson says he also brings his politics and views in too: “There are some things you can’t be impartial on.” (i.e. sexism, racism, transphobia, etc.)

  • Johnson says instead of being impartial he is clinical.

    • You can have a clinical question to better understand a person. It still gives you the freedom to be yourself.

Q: When do you deviate from prepared questions?

  • Happens every day!

  • If you’re really in the flow of a conversation, you have to be ready to deviate.

  • It’s easy to not know when to deviate.

  • Be prepared, well-read, and know where the arc of the show will go.

Q: Any mistakes?

  • Overly combative

  • Not in control of the discussion enough

  • Ask long and wordy-winded questions

  • Rushed the interview/didn’t watch the clock

  • Got facts wrong

  • “You make every mistake, but that’s how you grow.”


  • “The real interview is the conversation.”

  • “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”

  • “If you fall into patterns, you’ll make interviews boring for yourself. It’s the high wire that makes it fun.”

  • “If we are truly to be a people who embraces equality, at the end of the day, you have to be you.”

  • “Find where you fit and work the hell out of it.”