Breaking the Ice in an Interview

I’ve often wondered if there is a perfect way to begin an interview. Sometimes I stumble at the start. I’m excited, and I have a lot to accomplish in a short time. There must be a perfect method for breaking the ice in an interview, a technique that will set up a friendly-but-professional rapport with a source quickly. Right?

“How’s the weather in Timbuktu?” doesn’t seem to work for me. When I asked other writers how they start interviews, I was surprised that virtually no one attempts small talk, at least not on the phone.

“I try to get down to business pretty quickly,” says Jill Adams (bio). “I do spend some time introducing myself, reiterating what my goals are for the interview, and laying out what my task is for the publication. I think that me talking for a bit, framing the conversation we’re about to have, helps make sources comfortable.”

After explaining the purpose of his call, Douglas Fox (bio) often asks, “What kind of ‘ologist’ are you?” It’s a practical question, he says, because he wants to identify his source accurately in the article. “But people almost always find this question funny and disarming, which breaks the seriousness of my just having mentioned I’m going to record the conversation.”

Small talk doesn’t have to happen right at the start. “I tend to save the small talk for the middle or end of the interview,” says Emily Sohn (bio). “I’m usually eager to get my questions answered and once I have done that, I relax and get a little more casual. By then, the source is used to talking to me, too, and if the ‘interview chemistry’ is good, we’ve naturally created a rapport.” Following up on a source’s comment about kids or a soccer game can make a conversation more enjoyable and might lead to a great quote.

In Creative Interviewing, Ken Metzler says that small talk at the start of an interview can signal that the conversation is “a human one, not a mechanical Q&A format.” It offers the chance for your source to get a sense of your sincerity and trustworthiness, he says.

But it’s important to note that Metzler identifies ten stages of the interview, and breaking the ice is number five. Might be time for me to revisit those previous four.


Image credit: By Chrisrobertsantieau (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Alison Fromme has tracked rattlesnakes, witnessed dynamite blasts, and eaten goat stew while on assignment for national magazines and regional publications, including Backpacker, Discover, Pregnancy, and Mountain Home Magazine. She has also created educational materials for the New York Times Learning Network, PBS, McDougal Littell and many others. Alison lives in upstate New York, where she founded Ithaca’s Food Web, a hyperlocal website publishing local food news and commentary on topics ranging from crop disease outbreaks to school lunch reform. Alison is currently the Project Manager for The Science Writers’ Handbook.

4 responses to “Breaking the Ice in an Interview”

  1. Jill U Adams

    I think by getting down to business, I’m also showing respect for my source’s time. They’ve promised me 30 minutes of their time and I don’t want to seem wasteful with the first 3.

  2. anne sasso

    I agree with Jill. Most of my interviews these days are with sources within my corporate clients. They’re super busy. I’ll usually start off with “how’s your day going?” Which is mindless and gives them time to switch gears. I try to read their vocal cues, too. If they’re stressed, I’ll get right down to business. If they sound relaxed, then I know there’s room for more exploration in my questions. It sounds mercenary but once I have what I need from them, I’ll loosen up and chat if it’s appropriate.

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