The first time I went on assignment for The Town Common, I wore my interview outfit to the event I was covering. I wore a dark brown skirt that went to my knees, and a button-down blouse with short sleeves. I carried my “Reporter’s Notebook,” a few pens, and my camera. I brought my little sister with me, whom was around ten years old. I had just graduated from UMass Amherst with my Journalism degree.
It was an unveiling at the Georgetown Fire Station; I think they had bought a new fire truck and were showing it off to the public. There were at least 20 or 30 people at the event, talking to firefighters and policemen. There was free food, of course. I had no idea where to start. I was sweating, and nervous, and I stuck close to Cassi, although I knew I should be out there talking to people. While I was looking at some papers about the history of the new fire truck, Cassi walked around and came back. “They’re talking about you,” she said. “They’re making fun of your clothes.”
It was my first foray into the realization that looks damn well matter, and even as someone covering an event, you were expected to look a certain way. So, interviewing subjects for a newspaper is a lot like interviewing for a job. Here are some similiarities:
Dress the part
Come with a list of questions
1. Act interested
I can’t stress enough the importance of acting interested. If you do, as I had done that first day, and wander around uncertain where to begin, then onlookers have a longer period of time to judge and discuss you. They begin to distrust you almost immediately, and small towns are infamous for spreading rumors. The best thing to do is smile, say hello to everyone, and tell people who you are. Present yourself with confidence. This works at a job interview as well; it shows people that you are friendly, you are interested, and you are not hiding anything.
2. Dress the part
My other mistake was something I’m not sure I could have known beforehand. I was way overdressed for the occasion. The difference between interviewing for a job, and interviewing people for stories, is that if you overdress for a job you aren’t likely to ruin your odds; but if you overdress when interviewing others, you might.
During my years talking to other journalists and picking them out in crowds at events, I’ve discovered that most of us dress in whatever is comfortable. Feature writers especially wear what they want. Unless the president is visiting, it’s best to dress like the locals so you can fit in and keep anyone you talk to comfortable. Keeping your subject comfortable is a major concern.
3. Come with a list of questions
Asking questions shows that you are interested, and it can also show whether or not you have done your homework. For a job interview, I suggest doing your homework: learn about how the company was founded, what their mission statement is, who is in the chain of command, etc. But in journalism, as in many areas of business, I’m not sure it’s entirely to your advantage to show all that you know.
When my dad is negotiating a deal with someone, whether it’s to purchase or sell a car or a pellet stove, he asks questions that make it seem like he knows very little. “Why is there smoke coming out of this thing? Is it supposed to do that?” This has an amazing affect on people: it makes them talk. This way, you are able to see how much they know, and whether they are trying to swindle you.
If I’m working on a news story, and I have suspicions about a certain business, I am likely to start out with pleasantries, and then ask questions a little more difficult as we go, saving for last the ones I’m not sure I’ll get answers to. “Do your doctors get a commission? What about for pharmaceuticals?”
I am fantastic at job interviews precisely because I am most interested in learning about a job or a business, whether I really want the job or not. This also keeps me relaxed. If I don’t get this job, I’ll get the next one. And hey, now I’ve learned something about an industry I never expected to have anything to do with.
What is your advice to either journalists or job seekers? Is there something different that you’ve learned on your journey through working or writing? Was there ever a time when dressing your best for an interview would have been a problem?