Interviewing people for an article can be a daunting task. Some people love to give interviews and get to have their say, but others can be more reticent for a number of reasons such as fear of being misrepresented or misquoted. They might also just be shy. Even someone who is happy to be interviewed isn’t necessarily easy to interview. Part of your job is to keep them on track without making them feel manipulated or ignored. You must work with your subject to put them at ease and get the interview rolling. When your finished and go to write your story, you must also be respectful of that person; whether you like what they said or not, you should always strive to portray them accurately. Here are ten things to know in order to make your interviews more successful.
Know Your Facts
If you research the subject of your interview properly, it will go a long way toward making your interview successful. Most subjects, especially those who are interviewed often, hate having to repeat the same information over and over again. Don’t ask your subject questions you can easily find the answer to elsewhere. Ask them questions that only they can answer.
Know Your Audience, Know Your Topic
Be sure you are getting the information your audience will want. An interview with a politician for an issues-oriented magazine will differ from interviewing the same person for a pop-culture oriented magazine or for a daily paper. In the same way, a profile piece will be far different than a day in the life piece or an article focused on a single issue.
Write Your Questions Down
If you are the type who can memorize all of your interview questions beforehand, feel free to do so, but for most people it is better to keep a list of questions you want to ask. You may not need to stick strictly to them, but it is better to have a question you don’t need to use than to forget a question you wanted to ask.
Be Interested, Listen
A good interviewer doesn’t just ask questions, they listen to the answers. If a person agrees to an interview with you, show them the respect of listening to their answers. Nothing can turn a good interview into a bad one more than asking a person a question they have already answered. While you might wish to do that for clarification, don’t do it out of inattention. Beyond that, it is the details of their answers that should guide your next question. If they seem to have completed that line of thought, then move on, otherwise press them for more information. Good follow up questions lead to good interviews. You can only think of those questions by paying close attention to what your subject is saying.
Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t understand something. Don’t pretend to know more than you do. If your subject’s answer seems unclear or above your head, politely ask them to explain. It is better to ask up front than to look foolish later if they figure out that you have been faking it. Plus, if you don’t understand, then there is a good chance your audience won’t either.
Ask Precise Questions
Your questions should show your knowledge of the subject and should help you reach the goals you have set for your interview. Don’t ask vague, open-ended questions or standard questions that your subject has answered many times before. Stay away from questions that can simply be answered yes or no; look for questions that will challenge the subject in a good way. Make them think and let them talk.
Get Their Stories
At some point in an interview you want to get your subject to give you an anecdote or two. Let them talk a little bit, even if this particular article isn’t the place to tell the story. You may find information for another story, and you may get more than you’d hoped (or bargained) for.
Beware Unnecessary Confrontations
There are times when you will interview people who are evasive, untruthful, angry, distasteful or who simply have a reason to be cautious about your interview. Many interviewers move directly into a confrontational mode in these situations. They ask questions designed to antagonize or challenge the subject. Sometimes this works and they get an outburst or get the subject to become emotional. Another approach, however, is to work with the subject. Give them some questions that they can answer or feel more comfortable answering, and you may find that they will naturally drift toward what they don’t want to talk about. Whatever they want to avoid will continue to be on their mind, so it naturally comes up. If not, you can then ask more and more probing questions until you wither get what you want, get an outburst or the subject simply will not answer. Even if this happens, you will still have more to work with than if you confronted them at the beginning and they refused to talk.
Get the Name Right
Always get them to spell their name for you. Getting a name wrong is the most embarrassing thing a writer can do.
Interviewing people is often a difficult task, but it is an essential one in many different fields of writing. If you make the effort to do the job properly, it will pay dividends later. Pay attention to these suggestions. You may also want to practice with friends and family until you become comfortable with the interviewing process.
For further information:
- Ten Killer Interviewing Tips at Freelance Folder
- Uncooperative Subjects: A Comparison of Two Failed Interviews and How to Turn Them Around at I’d Rather be Writing
- The Art of the Interview, ESPN-Style at NPR