Among the many skills writers and creatives must master, interviewing might be one of the toughest, especially if you’re an introvert. Most of us aren’t born interviewers; we have to develop those skills over time.
Most of us can learn a thing or two by watching the late Barbara Walters’ interviews, how she maintains focus on her subject at all times as if that person is the only one in the room. She speaks to them as if holding a simple conversation. Really when you think about it, that’s what an interview is – a simple conversation between people. What’s so scary about that?
Of course, the interviewer – you – holds the key to making the interview productive and successful. Success, however, is only as you define it. A successful interview might be snagging that elusive source you’ve been chasing for several weeks. It could be gleaning an important detail you didn’t expect to get, or it could be getting a normally reticent person to open up about themselves.
Interviewing is just one aspect of writing that most novice writers don’t think about. Interviews are often needed for getting background information on a topic for a work of fiction, non-fiction, magazine feature or other written work. For example, if your story takes place in a bank but you’ve never worked in a bank yourself, you might interview one or two people who do to get a sense of what their day is like, their process for handling money or for dealing with customers, or worse, how they would deal with a bank robbery.
Interviews can cover a variety of topics such workplace issues, health and wellness, auto mechanics and baking. In my magazine writing, I’ve interviewed experts about the housing market, how to create webinars, blockchain technology ADA compliance.
Don’t overlook interviews for memoir either. Sometimes you need to find historical information to build context into your memoir or a biography set in another time and place.
From my experience writing for trade association publications, I’ve learned how to be more comfortable about asking people for their perspective on certain topics. People LOVE to talk about themselves, especially the work they do or a hobby or side interest they enjoy. Tap into those topics, and you’re usually home free. Even the most reticent person will open up about what interest them.
To maximize your success, here are my keys to conducting good interviews:
- Be prepared. Research the topic to develop a cursory knowledge and can ask semi-intelligent questions. Read published articles about the topic or contact subject matter experts. If possible, research the individual you’re interviewing too. Use LinkedIn to get their background and education. You may even find that you have something in common with them, such as graduating from the same university.
- Set a goal for the interview. Think of one or two pieces of information that you need to know that only that person can provide.
- Focus on the person you’re interviewing. Don’t use the time to talk about yourself. Be personable without getting too personal. Allow the person to speak without interrupting them with your own story.
- Get the basics first, such as the spelling of their name, their company and occupation. Brief them on the interviewing process and what will happen once the interview is complete. Notify them when the article will be published. You might make comments about the weather or their local sports team to help them relax and build rapport.
- Go slow. Start with easier questions. Softer, open-ended questions are more likely to put them at ease. Avoid closed questions with simple yes or no responses which might make them feel like they’re being interrogated.
- Be polite and considerate, but don’t fawn over them. Remember they have other obligations and their time might be limited, so don’t waste time. Be sure to thank them at the end for their time.
- Conclude the session by asking if they have any final thoughts. I like to ask the question, “Is there anything else readers should know about this topic that I have not asked about?” Most of the time, they may not have anything else to add. More often, they reiterate a point they made earlier. Occasionally, you will get a true nugget of information that adds depth to their commentary.
- Follow up. Send a thank you for their time and perspective. Ask for additional questions if needed. Also ask for additional resources they might know of about the topic or other people you can interview. Explain the process moving forward and whether they’ll have a chance to review their sections of it before it gets published. That’s a detail you’ll have to work out with your editor. Depending on the publication and deadline, some editors require source reviews while others may not.
Interviews can be fun to do – if you’re prepared and you know what you want to accomplish. Once you’ve done a few, you’ll have one more skill in the writers’ arsenal.