Writers conduct interviews. It’s one of the ways we gather useful quotes from an expert … a specialist’s how-to’s … anecdotes for a feature article or book. Interviewing checks one of the boxes in a writer’s “research” column.
Yet maybe like me, you shrink away from the Woodward and Bernstein caricature of the relentless reporter. You’re willing to probe and delve and investigate. But must you be an interviewing pit bull?
Nope. In fact, a gracious interviewer often gets the goods that a bulldozing interrogator misses. You can be a well-mannered pro both on the phone and in-person when you follow a few simple tips for successful interviewing.
People are busy. You want to catch them during those moments when they’ll give thoughtful answers, so schedule an interview appointment. Suggest an amount of time that will allow you to gather the information you need. If you’re looking for the person’s expert observation or a few comments on a subject, say, “I think we’ll need just 5–10 minutes together.” But if the individual is a central subject of a feature article, you’ll need to allow a couple of hours.
The exception to scheduling an interview in advance? When your article is time-sensitive, with a turnaround of minutes or hours. If that’s the case, then pick up the phone and ask away.
“The first thing I tell anybody who’s going to be doing interviews is (to do your) homework,” says broadcasting legend Barbara Walters (b. 1929). “I do so much homework that I know more about the person than he or she does about himself.”
The internet makes this easy. Type the name into Google. Study the person’s LinkedIn page or their business website. Gather enough information so you have basic information ahead of time and can use the interview to get to meatier questions.
When I was assigned a story about a local veteran’s golf tournament, I did some quick research before scheduling my interviews. Turns out that one of the organizers was a retired Chief Master Sergeant, the highest-ranked enlisted airmen in the Air Force. As soon as the interview started, I was able to immediately thank him for his service and launch right into questions about his different activities with veterans during retirement.
While this bit of advice goes against today’s journalistic “gotcha” grain, I find that well-planned questions save everybody time and build trust. Interviewees are better prepared when they know what you’re looking for. They can reflect on what to share and even dredge up details that they might otherwise forget in a rushed moment.
This means that well before the interview, I must think through what to ask. What pieces of the puzzle are missing? What details do I need to learn that I couldn’t find out with advance research? What intrigues me and moves me to want to know more?
A slate of starting point questions allows me to dig in more deeply with follow-up questions like, “Can you tell me more about that experience?” or “Since you’re speaking about a specialized subject, can you explain that in lay terms for my readers?”
Shoot an email or text to the interviewee prior to your meeting. That way, your appointment is fresh on their mind and calendar.
When I conduct an interview on the phone, I explain that I am taking notes and that the person on the other end of the line may hear me typing. I wear a headset to free up my hands. I paste my questions into a fresh document and type answers as close to word-for-word as I can.
When I conduct an interview in person, I take notes on a legal pad.
You may find it helpful to use a handheld recorder and transcribe your notes later. If so, then ask for permission to record an interview.
If you miss a comment because the subject is speaking too fast, ask them to repeat what was said. Or you can ask the question again with slightly different wording. Most people enjoy talking about themselves and are glad to offer clarity. When you get the specifics right the first time, then you save time that you’d have to use with follow-up. Accurate notes lead to accurate content in your article and mark you as a pro.
More than half of those I interview work straight from the list of questions I’ve sent. I let them talk. Meanwhile, I listen carefully for what they’re not saying or what they want to say if prompted further. Then I …
I avoid using questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, I use what, how, and why questions, such as:
Another way to get unique nuggets (rather than run-of-the-mill answers) is to use “describe” (“Describe what you were thinking at that point”) or “tell me” (“Tell me how your family and friends responded”.)
Keep an eye on the clock and respect the interviewee’s time. If you said you’d limit the conversation to 30 minutes, then be true to your word.
If my deadline allows, and when I’m writing a profile or feature article, I offer to share the article draft with the person I’ve interviewed — “so you can confirm the facts.” Put this way, you allow the interviewee to see how you’ve used their information and how you’ve quoted them. You also give them the opportunity to correct minor mistakes.
It’s a simple courtesy. Most people are grateful — and even surprised — for the opportunity to review what you’ve written before publication. Yet by explaining that you want them to review the facts, you don’t open the door to a different slant or a complete re-write. And I am always careful not to promise to make changes to the manuscript.
That’s because a handful of people want to become your editor.
When I profiled a local seafood store owner, I gave my usual “please-confirm-the-facts” reviewing spiel. He returned the manuscript with an extra 1,000 words added by his mother, “an experienced writer.” The article was unrecognizable. I graciously responded that could not use the re-write because (mercifully), I was restricted by the publication’s word count.
There are times when you may need more information to fill out your article or book chapter or blog post. Your interviewee may know other colleagues or friends who can help. Ask, “Is there anyone else I should speak with?” or “Who do you recommend that I talk with further to get input on this topic?”
These days, gratitude is in short supply. Offer it. A short email or text saying, “Thank you for sharing with me today. I enjoyed our conversation,” will suffice.
By expressing thanks, you stand out from others as a writer of class, rather than as a pit bull. And the person you interview will be glad to help when you call on him again.
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