How do you make seemingly boring interviews interesting for an online and print audience?
October 5, 2011 7:19 AM   Subscribe

How do you make seemingly boring interviews interesting for an online and print audience?

A friend of mind has got a job as journalist for the local rag. He has
been assigned a task of interviewing local tradespeople. How does he make interviews with plumbers, electricians, carpenters etc interesting?

What do veteran journalists do in cases like this? what tricks would they have up their sleeves? OR can anyone recommend a book which covers this type of cub journalism?
posted by jacobean to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Photographs of (wo)men at work! A box with a list of funny stuff in it such as:
- worst job?
- first job?
- pets?
- dream job?
- Are you working on a masterpiece?

Good luck!
posted by parmanparman at 7:22 AM on October 5, 2011

They should do some research that will let them bring an informed perspective to the interview questions and write well around the interview in the column.
posted by michaelh at 7:27 AM on October 5, 2011

He's got to change his mindset. He can't go in thinking "these are seemingly boring interviews." He actually has to be interested in his subjects.

As for the list of questions above, I'd advise caution. If these are men and women who aren't used to being interviewed, your friend needs to put them at ease. While there are lots of different approaches to that, not making them feel bad about themselves should be near the top of the list. The masterpiece question could be taken the wrong way? "No. I'm not working on a masterpiece. Should I be? What are you implying? That I'm just a hack? How do you expect me to work on a masterpiece when I'm plumbing in toilets in this new 50-home development 7-days a week?" I'm sure you get the drift. Additionally if they are worker profiles, pets may not have anything to do with the topic, and while some topic drift is fine (and actually makes for better interviews) it is better if the topic drift occurs naturally as a result of the conversation.

Actually, thinking about it in terms of a conversation may be helpful. Again, if they are just short profiles of local small business owners and tradesmen, the paper won't be expecting your friend to grill the subjects. Instead, your friend just needs to get them talking, which falls under that "put them at ease" advice I mentioned above.
posted by sardonyx at 7:31 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Get him to read Studs Turkel's Working. That will help more than any list of questions handed to him can.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 7:34 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ask about their apprenticeship, very valid in this economy.
posted by atomicmedia at 7:34 AM on October 5, 2011

"Local tradespeople" are no more interesting than the chairman of GE or a movie star. Some people might be a little more modest and keep their answers short at first, but everyone has a story. Everyone is a character.

Yes, do research before you come in. You don't have to be an expert, but it'll make your subject feel good and it'll be a lot easier for both of you. It's just respectful; how would you want someone to act when they interview you? Do you want everyone thinking that your job is boring as shit? No? Then do your best for the people you interview.

Always think of yourself (the reporter) as a "regular person" -- because, hey, you are! So what would you like to know? Do you have a question that you think might be stupid, but you just have to ask? Do you know some urban legend about alligators in the sewer system? Ask a plumber! Be thoughtful, but don't be afraid to get a little silly.

Face the cliches or assumptions head-on with your subject. "A lot of people I know seem to think they can fix XYZ without the help of a handyman. What are the biggest mistakes that a lot of home handymen make?"

Find some way to get them talking about the things they're passionate about, even if they're not necessarily related to the job (or -- this is key -- you don't THINK they are). This can get their words flowing, so then you can either circle back to work stuff or go in a different direction.

Example: a prizewinning journalist who visited my class met with a KKK leader who refused to discuss most of the things the journalist came to discuss. But the journalist had done his research, so he knew that the guy collected antique silverware. So he started asking questions about that. The guy opened up, got more comfortable with the interviewer, etc. so that when the interviewer started getting back into more serious questions, the guy couldn't clam up again.

Only ask open-ended questions.
NO: "Do you like your job?" (They can answer yes or no, and that's the end of that.)
YES: "What's your favorite part of the job?"

Look around you, or listen carefully, for tips on a subject. What kinds of objects are in her office, or on her tool belt? Does she wear a certain kind of outfit, or have certain things that look a little incongruous? What does her truck look like -- always a good one for tradespeople :) Is it neat or messy? Is it new or comfortably used? Are there slogans painted on it? (A local plumber has cards and the slogan, "A royal flush is better than a full house!")

Your friend might find some good tips online at The Nieman Foundation is another good resource. Another book, recommended in a recent Poynter webinar on profile writing, is James B. Stewart's Follow the Story.
posted by Madamina at 7:40 AM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Ack. I meant "Local tradespeople are no LESS interesting."
posted by Madamina at 7:42 AM on October 5, 2011

I have a similar writing gig...I agree with another commenter, approaching this as a "boring interview" is the first mistake.

If it's a local (general) magazine and not a trade publication, I would focus on the people and how their job weaves into their life. Everyone has something they are passionate about. You want to find that passion and encourage them to talk about it. Asking about how they got started is a good conversation starter and a universal question. What do they like about their job? What would people not in the business be surprised to learn? Do they have any words of advice for someone looking to take up a similar trade? What's the most disastrous job site they've ever been on? What do they like to do in their time off? What are some other local tradespeople they like to work with?

Getting them talking about something, anything, that they are passionate about is the important part. If they are bored being interviewed, it will come across as a boring interview.
posted by beyond_pink at 7:42 AM on October 5, 2011

If the guy is going into the process thinking people are boring, he needs to be in a different line of work. There's no advice that is going to help him.
posted by timsteil at 8:02 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is not boring! This is awesome!!! People who do trades are really cool and I'd be thrilled to see more local interviews in my paper. Ask about how they started, their funniest story about their job, what they do in their spare time, their longest work day EVER, the day when everything went all wrong, etc. Just ask about everything. Notice little details and pick two or three to bring up during the interview. Most people are bound to open up eventually, and everybody is an interesting human (even if they are absolutely convinced of their boring-ness).
posted by 200burritos at 8:48 AM on October 5, 2011

Yeah, your buddy has the entirely wrong attitude about this. These are people who work on the things around us every day and see sides of it that the average person never sees. And people LOVE to peek behind the curtain.

The Diner Party Download guys have an interesting approach to this; they ask folks what question they are tired of being asked and what don't we know. I'd change that to what question are you amazed you never get asked, but it's not my show :) But it's good guidance for finding out what these folks know that most people don't.

Every one of his readers has electrical and indoor plumbing. There's stuff to be found out.
posted by phearlez at 9:07 AM on October 5, 2011

There was something on the blue a couple weeks ago that was "What are popular misconceptions about your job?"

I love getting into things from a "how do things work?" perspective, though I understand that isn't everyone's cup of tea.
posted by RobotHero at 9:35 AM on October 5, 2011

In addition to the questions above, I think it's always interesting to find out how people got into their current position.
posted by chickenmagazine at 11:11 AM on October 5, 2011

Ditto on the human interest angle. I love this news/blog series - it's human interest first, but it also addresses tradespeople in the context of Detroit's boom and bust:

This story
, tangentially about locksmiths, made me cry.
posted by Maarika at 7:54 PM on October 5, 2011

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