For Audie Cornish, the key to successful interviewing is getting to the essence of the person quickly. “If you’re going to put that person in front of 10 million people, you need to make it good,” said the co-host of NPR’s flagship evening news program All Things Considered.
Cornish, 35, traveled to Columbia, Mo. in October to receive a Missouri Honor Medal for her work in journalism.
“I’m in love with audio,” she told a group of students and faculty Oct. 28. Cornish, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2001 with a journalism degree, said she discovered her school’s radio station by picking up a flyer off the ground. She bought a tape recorder from Radio Shack and went to interview civil rights activist Ward Connerly later that evening.
Since then, Cornish has worked as a reporter for the Associated Press, Boston public radio station WBUR and as an NPR correspondent in Nashville and Washington, D.C. She was named a co-host of All Things Considered in 2011, and has interviewed thousands of people over the course of her career.
Each moment before she walks into the broadcast room, she takes the time to figure out the one question she really wants to ask. That’s the question that gets to the heart of the person and the story they are telling, she said. But it’s often not the first question that should be asked, nor the first question Cornish asks herself.
When Phil Schultz, the Pulitzer-prize winning poet, described what reading with dyslexia is like, Cornish responded that his experience reminds her of what it felt like when she read poetry. “No one has ever said that to me before,” he told her. Her question and ensuing comment sparked a moment of connection that then gave her the chance to segue into a discussion about dyslexia and how it influenced who Schultz was.
“You bring ‘you’ to the interview and don’t ignore your own perspective,” Cornish said. Striking out is part of the job–and so is the risk of potentially offending interviewees or listeners. “Don’t get into this job if you’re afraid of offending people,” she said.
To get started, journalists should always think about what type of story the interview is for, she said. A news story may require a different approach than a feature. Journalists should also consider if the person they are interviewing is a civilian or a professional, she said. Actors and activists interview professionally and are much more practiced than the average person.
It’s also important to think about the final form of the interview, Cornish said. If the interview is what people will hear, then it’s important to provide context questions to guide the interviewee and the listeners.
“The point is not to show off how much you know, you are helping narrate the story,” she said.
As journalists conduct their interview, they should identify the narrative points of the story quickly, Cornish said. They should think about what they need that only their particular interviewee can tell. Lines that begin with “’And then this happened’ are your best friend,” she said, because they often lead into anecdotes.
When confronted with subjects who don’t open up right away, Cornish suggested asking them what the weather was like or what a particular person was wearing at a key moment. This technique, known as “setting the scene,” helps bring the subject back to the exact day, to the exact place, to the exact moment, she said.
Once the subject walks through the story, journalists should be prepared with response questions that can help their audience understand the situation. It’s the moment when the interviewer should be asking what the experience means, how it differs from others. “These are the moment of Zen questions,” she said.
Cornish also suggested using an earlier quote from the interviewee as a way to frame a new question or prompt a response. This approach can help to get interview subjects talking and offer a succinct way to get information to listeners quickly, she said.
Often times, interviewers will mirror the person they’re interviewing in order to show respect for their work or experiences. Cornish said she doesn’t do this, and prefers to meet people halfway.
Ultimately, “the only way to get better at interviewing people is to interview as many people as possible,” she said. And don’t wait for permission to start asking questions. Journalism is a competitive field, and the bar of entry is low, she added.