Many of us writers are good at researching topics in books or online or coming up with cool stuff in our own heads. But there are some instances where we can only get the kind of information we want from talking to an actual human being. This is especially true if we want to know what it was like for someone to experience something we’re writing about. We may also need to write a story about that person.
The thought of asking someone to talk to us can be intimidating; it was for me when I first started working in journalism many years ago. But it was a necessary part of the job, so I learned through talking to other journalists and also through trial and error.
I’ve gathered together some of my own tips as well as others I’ve come across that will hopefully remove some of the intimidation of asking for and conducting a personal interview. Remember that everyone is different, so some of these hints may not work in all situations; be prepared to adjust.
Asking for an interview
Call or email your subject. Follow up if you don’t hear back. Emails or phone messages can get lost, go to spam folders, etc. Explain who you are, why you’re calling (or emailing) and ask if the person will be able to speak with you (over phone, in person, video chat preferred). Some people want questions emailed to them. YUK! Sending prepared questions elicits prepared answers and also takes much more time for both you and your subject. Sometimes, you get adequate responses, but they are rarely as good as a face-to-face, candid interaction. Make clear the topics that you wish to cover.
You might let them know approximately how much time you expect the interview to take (this can vary as you get into the interview). Ask the person where they would like to meet you, offer suggestions. Come up with a time, place that both of you feel comfortable with.
Hopefully, your subject will be inclined to talk to you and you won’t have to try to convince them. Have a plan just in case you encounter resistance. – “if you talk, it will help others” or “I need to understand this topic, so I present it properly,” are possible responses in this case. If they simply won’t talk, ask them if they know of someone else who might.
Preparing for an Interview
1 Research the person. You should know as much as possible about the person you’re interviewing, so you go into the interview feeling prepared and in control. Look up as much relevant information about the person as you can, and ask other people about your subject. This will help you have a sense of the person’s personality, which will help you plan your interview.
2 Clarify your objective. Why are you talking to this person? What information do you wish to gather? Are you giving readers more insight into that person’s personal life? Are you discussing one aspect of that person’s career? Are you asking this person about their views on an issue? Do you need them to explain something that they are an expert on? Whatever your objective, your questions should help you meet your objectives. This will keep your interview more focused and make sure you don’t drift off-topic.
3 Prepare questions. You should prepare questions that are flexible, open-ended, most of when come equipped with at least one or two follow-up questions that you can ask depending on the answer to the original question.
Write down your questions in approximate order of asking. Lob up the easy questions first, not ones that hit at the heart of the matter, especially if it might be on a controversial or difficult topic. This can loosen up both you and the subject, get both of you into interview mode before hitting the meat and potatoes.
In fact, you can think of an interview in terms of a fancy meal. Serve the appetizers, soups and salads first. Light questions, easy to digest, casual. Then go for the entrée. Ask the questions that demand a little more introspection or thought. You may have some difficult questions. Save those for late.
In most instances you want to coax answers, and not hammer away at someone. There are times, depending on your job and the topic, where your questions need to be more pointed, where you need to hammer away until you get some answers.
Ask what you don’t know. Sounds simple. But sometimes people get too caught up in asking basic facts that have been reported everywhere. “I know this person emigrated from Bulgaria when they were 8 years old. But I don’t know why.” Ask why. Yes, there are times you want to confirm facts. But by asking things you don’t know you get new stories.
Avoid most “yes” or “no” questions or questions that can be answered in just a few words.
Ask questions that allow the person you’re interviewing to expand. – “What were you thinking when” … “How did that make you feel?” “What factors went into your decision?” … WHO? WHAT? WHERE? WHY? HOW?
Ask just one question at a time. Asking more than one at a time will overwhelm your interviewee and they may not get to some of the questions.
Ask questions that are relevant to your objectives. Let the subject go on tangents if they wish, but you may need to rein them back in, especially if time is a factor.
Don’t ask questions that are so broad that your subject doesn’t know how to answer them. Your subject should be directed enough to know what type of an answer you’re looking for. For example, don’t ask “So, tell me about your life” or “Tell me what you think about climate change.” Too broad.
Don’t forget about the past, the present and the future. In most cases, you’ll want to know where someone has been, where they are now and where they hope to go. Or how their thoughts on a subject have changed over time. This goes whether you’re discussing their political career, their battle with prostate cancer or their thoughts on atomic fusion. The journeys people take can be some of most interesting stories you can gather.
REMEMBER WHO YOU’RE SERVING: Your Audience. Who is going to be reading this? What do those people want and need to know?
4 Prepare some topics for small talk. You should even prepare the small talk you’ll be making at the beginning of the interview. This shouldn’t take much time, but could help you start the interview off on the right foot and make your subject feel comfortable. “Wow, the weather is awful out there, I had to stop on the way and scrape ice off my windshield.”
Or if you know something about the hobbies or side-interests of the person you’re interviewing, you can casually bring them up. The subject will feel more at ease if he can talk about something that makes him comfortable.
But again, be brief. You don’t want to spend the subject’s valuable time on small talk.
5 Check your recording equipment (optional). If you’re using a recorder (and make sure that’s OK with the subject before you start), ensure it works and has fresh batteries before the day of the interview. You don’t want your interview to be doomed before it starts. Have plenty of pens, paper, and extra batteries, too. Use what method works for you.
Conducting the Interview
When you get to the interview location:
1 Introduce yourself. Have warm and open body language as you shake hands with the person and introduce yourself. Thank them again for meeting with you.
2 Make the person comfortable. We mentioned the possibility of small talk. But if the subject seems disinterested in that, just move on. Everyone is different, and some people prefer just to get to the subject at hand.
If you’re at the person’s home or office, look around the room for some objects, such as paintings, photographs, or souvenirs that are displayed. The person put them up because he’s proud of them. You could ask a question or two about them, which might help them open up or help you understand them better.
If you meet at a public place or at your office, do what you can to make sure the environment is comfortable by providing comfortable seating, relative privacy, and offer a beverage or light snacks if appropriate. Make the person feel at home.
3 Ask your questions. Make the person feel like you’re just having a natural conversation, not firing questions at her like a detective or trying to trick them into saying something they don’t want to say.
4 Listen, and make sure the subject knows you’re listening. Keep eye contact as much as possible while taking notes, nod when they make a point or use your eyes and body language to indicate you are truly interested in what they are saying. BUT DON’T OVERDO IT. You should already know what your next question will be, so you don’t have to think about that. Be thinking of a follow-up to THIS answer if need be. If your mind wanders, the person you’re interviewing will be able to tell.
Pick up on important words or phrases that the person says. If they trigger something, you may be able to ask a completely new question that you hadn’t planned on.
Don’t be afraid to lead people to say more. Say “really?” or “uh huh” or “oh yeah?” like you expect them to elaborate because you do. Often, a person will add interesting details or recall a funny or interesting anecdote that really adds to their answer.
If you don’t understand something the person says, ask for a clarification or a repeat. The last thing you want is to do is publish incorrect, misleading or incomplete information because you didn’t understand something. Most subjects are happy to make sure you understand what it is they’re saying.
5 Shut up. The interview is not about you, it’s about your subject. So, don’t dominate the conversation. While occasionally interjecting relevant personal information can make the person feel more comfortable or show that you understand, you should limit your input. It’s OK if there are some pauses or moments of silence. Let the person think for a moment before you jump in.
6 Let the person be natural. Wait out the person’s nervousness and canned phrases until the person opens up and says something informative, enlightening, or even surprising. You want to walk away from the interview with information that you didn’t already know and a new insight into that person’s character or ideas.
If you think the person isn’t quite answering the question, perhaps you need to rephrase it.
7 Stay focused. Remember your original questions. Though you can go off course a bit or ask questions that come to you based on how the interview is going, you should try to meet your objectives. If you notice that the person is drifting off and completely avoiding your real questions — whether it’s intentional or not — you’ll need to veer the person back on track.
One exception to this tip would be if the tangent that you start going off on is infinitely more interesting or informative than what you had planned. Yes, you can change horses in midstream … IF the new horse gets you to the other side in better fashion. Another possible option is to talk to them about one topic now and ask if you can talk about the other topic at another time.
However, if your subject starts going off on some weird tangent that has absolutely nothing to do with your topic, feel free to stop writing and loosen up on the eye contact just a smidge. They may sense they are losing your attention and will most likely trail off. Iff not, gently bring them back to the purpose of the interview. They’re doing you a favor by talking to you, but it’s still YOUR interview; you know what you want to accomplish.
Wrapping Up the Interview
1 Questions to (almost) always ask. In just about any interview, you’ll want to ask these questions, or versions of them (and this will depend of course on the purpose of the interview): “What difficulties have you encountered in getting where you are now?” “What do you hope happens regarding this topic?” “Who has helped you along the way? “Is there anyone else you know who could help me with this topic?” “How did you get interested in this?” The answers to these questions alone can provide lots of interesting information.
2 Wrap up the interview professionally. Don’t abruptly halt the proceedings, say something like “Well, that’s all I need,” and leave. Instead, say something like, “Before we wrap this up, is there anything else you’d like to chat about or is there anything I forgot to ask about that you’d like to mention?” This makes the person feel like you were in the conversation together, that you value what they have to say, and gives them an opportunity to share things they may have thought about but not said. I have also found that this sometimes takes the topic, throws it into a nice box and ties it up with a bow for you with a great summary and quotable quotes.
3 Thank the person again. Thank the person for taking the time to chat with you and for being so patient and answering your questions. Continue to be warm and welcoming even after you’ve put your recorder or notebook away. Make sure they have your contact information and ask them that if they think of anything else, you’d appreciate a call or email. Also, ask them if you can contact them again if, as you go through your notes, you realize you’d forgotten to ask something. Remind them when and where your story or book will be published, if you know, and make sure they know how they can obtain a copy, or offer to send them a copy.
4 Follow up with a thank-you note (optional). You can also send the person a thank-you card or email depending on your relationship with the person and the nature of the interview. This can make the person feel that his efforts were truly appreciated. It doesn’t have to be formal; overdoing the thanks can make it awkward.
I hope you’ve received some valuable information here. Feel free to share with others, and if you have any questions or comments, please let me know.
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