How to use your interviewing skills to trend on Twitter

Journalists can be their own worst enemies when they try to interact with their audience online. If you think that the online medium somehow fundamentally changes the way that people interact, and that you need to adopt a new set of principles for interviewing and interacting with people online, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.

It’s like watching an actor psyche himself out before going on stage, or a golfer giving herself a harsh set of the yips when approaching the green. Journalists I’ve met and worked with too often talk themselves out of their natural state and familiar skills when they start thinking about online interactivity. And those fears of failure quickly become self-fulfilling.

Here’s a success story story for you to consider, instead. Not to get all hokey on you, but I do believe that if you’re thinking about success when you interact with your readers, you’re putting yourself in a better place than if you go into conversations with negative thoughts. The key take-away from this success story is that it happened by using good, old-fashioned, print-era, j-school techniques for doing interviews. No special “online” skills required.

Here we go: Last week, I decided to get more active on Twitter by hosting an afternoon “Twitter chat” each weekday. (Okay, I hear people freaking out now. “You said this didn’t require any special online skills, Robert!” Chill. Stay with me.)

I got the idea after stumbling into a couple fun back-and-forth chats with a few of my followers in recent weeks. One time I threw a question out there, and another I responded to someone else’s. In both cases, others joined in with their answers and we had a nice conversation for the better part of an hour.

While I love Twitter as an RSS replacement – a handy way to push headline feeds out to willing readers – the medium’s also a perfect one for this type of focused, real-time conversation. You don’t need a pay for some special chat tool, and the 140-character limit forces everyone to get to a point efficiently.

So I figured, why wait for these moments just to happen? Why not schedule some conversations, and let my readers know when to expect them? The trouble with these types of planned events, of course, is that they too often come across as too planned. It’s like going to a party where the host has overscripted every element of the event. Who wants to be told when the fun starts?

This isn’t some network broadcast interview, where advance work has squeezed all potential for spontaneity from the conversation. Instead of coming to each Twitter chat with a list of canned questions to ask, I kicked it off with a single question, then let the conversation evolve from there.

Listen, then react. Probe. Direct. Test. Challenge.


Eventually, something will click. C’mon – we’re all confident when doing an interview with a source. Don’t let a lack of comfort with Twitter or any other online medium rob you of that confidence. Interviewing is interviewing. If you can elicit insight, passion, and emotion from a source offline, you can do it online, too. And those reactions will help your conversation connect with a broader audience.

The interaction never starts right away. I’ve needed at least four tweets to get the conversation going. And more times than not, my original topic dies in just as many tweets after that. So what? Find what makes your interviewees come alive. Then go there. You’ve done this before.

By the third day of my Tweet chats, we trended nationwide in the United States.

Sure, it was silly. A conversation about travel planning mutated into a bunch of gags about theme park attraction names. But it was a perfect diversion for a late Friday afternoon, and the audience was looking for fun, so I helped a few leaders in the conversation steer it there. Yet it wouldn’t have happened if I’d stubbornly restricted the event to a pre-planned script. Or if I’d been too inexperienced with interviewing to pick up on the potential in what looked like a mistake from a reader with only a dozen or so followers. But it was there. And when we followed it, dozens of lurkers jumped in, brought their followers, and we were trending 20 minutes later. (Search for #disneybudgetcuts for the whole thing, if you must.)

Of course, the trend list shouldn’t be every publication’s goal. But better engagement should be. I’ve long said that journalists have the unique set of skills to succeed in social media. Engagement and communication are our business. So don’t let a change in medium psych you out. Try a regularly scheduled Twitter chat with your followers and let your interviewing skills shine. Talk about whatever. Just use it as an excuse to get together with your followers, and talk.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at