I remember the first time I had to interview someone for a story. It was an assignment for my college journalism class, and I wound up talking to a professor who did research on ticks—yes, as in the creepy, crawly, blood-sucking insects.
To be honest, it wasn’t the subject matter that was bad. You see, this professor was a talker. In fact, he was hands down the most talkative person I’ve ever interviewed in my career. Seriously, I came prepared with 10 questions for him, and after an hour and a half (!!), we had only gotten through four. Not exaggerating. I left with more information than I knew what to do with and a newfound fear of interviewing people!
Interviewing is a skill that you need to practice constantly.
Since then, I’ve done dozens of interviews, and thankfully, I’m no longer scared of talkative people (in fact, they’re preferable to one-word-answerers). Just like writing, interviewing is a skill that you need to practice again and again—that’s the only way to improve! However, if you’re looking for tips on how to interview someone for a story or research, here are a few tidbits of wisdom to get you started.
Do Your Research, and Then Do More
Hopefully it goes without saying that you should do a lot—and I mean a lot—of research before any interview. Find out as much as you can about your subject, everything from where they were born, their college and their first job to their hobbies and favorite authors. It may seem like overkill, but the more you know about the person you’re interviewing, the more tailored and personal your questions will be. In turn, tailored, relevant questions will bring out the best insights to aid and further your story.
Don’t waste time asking questions that you could find the answers to online.
I think a common mistake for a lot of new writers is asking basic background questions in an interview. Asking questions that you already know the answers to or could have found online is simply a waste of time. If you want to check facts for accuracy, go ahead, but you should use the majority of your precious interview time to dive into previously unpublished parts of your interviewee’s story.
Be Prepared for Both Extremes
Once in a while, you might be lucky enough to interview someone who gives “just right” answers—not too long, not too brief, not full of fluff. However, most of the time, people either talk way too much (like the professor I discussed earlier) or give one- or two-word answers. Neither of these people will give a good interview if left to their own devices, so you have to learn to manipulate the conversation as needed.
If you asked a simple question and your subject is still talking five minutes later, don’t be afraid to gently cut them off. You have to control the flow of the conversation, otherwise there’s no way you’ll get through everything.
Similarly, if you ask a hard-hitting question and your interviewee gives you one short sentence, you’ve got to be prepared with a follow-up question that draws more information out and gets them talking. One key to getting one-word-answerers to talk more is to avoid yes-or-no questions, and when you have to ask them, have a follow-up about their feelings or motivations.
Make It a Conversation
Have you ever been to a job interview where you and the interviewer hit it off naturally? In these situations, you generally end up having more of a free-flowing, comfortable conversation, as opposed to a disjointed Q&A session. I think we can all agree the former is a more enjoyable experience, and it usually yields better results.
Approach your interview the same way. Try to establish some common ground to break the ice. Ask about their kids or compliment a piece of their work you enjoy. Above all, use your questions to create a two-way dialogue.
Let your natural banter lead the way—you don’t have to ask your questions in the order they’re written. In fact, you don’t have to follow them at all! If your conversation goes in an unexpected direction, see it out. In my experience, these detours can lead to some of the most profound insights.
Record the Interview
I’m going to go ahead and contradict what your college professor told you: Record your interviews whenever possible, and use written notes as a backup.
This goes against what most professors preach, but here’s the thing: If you’re scrambling to write down quotes and take thorough notes during an interview, there are inevitably going to be long pauses when you’re trying to catch up. Pauses are awkward, and they prevent interviews from being conversational. So yes, you have my permission to record your interview.
If you’re scrambling to take thorough notes, there are inevitably going to be awkward pauses.
Two important tips here, however. One, make sure you trust your recorder with your life (and your career). Know how it works inside and out. There’s literally nothing more awkward than finishing and interview and realizing nothing was recorded. Yes, this is why professors recommend using notes as your primary source of info recording.
Second, ask permission before you use a recorder. Even better, get the interviewee’s verbal consent on the recording. The vast majority of people don’t care if you record, but it’s important from a legal standpoint to disclose you’re recording the conversation.
Ask If You Can Follow Up
Finally, before you part ways, ask if it’s OK to follow up if you have more questions. Most people won’t mind if you follow up without asking, but it’s just a small gesture that shows you’re appreciative of their time.