“You need to interview key players for this story.”
Few words strike more terror in the heart of an introverted, reclusive writer than an editor’s casual mention of interviews.
“Why interview? Why me?”
Interviews are crucial for feature articles and news coverage. They’re essential for many corporate newsletters, press packages and internal communications.
They provide key information that helps you shape and move stories forward. They give you the detail and color you need to pull readers into your narrative and let them experience events firsthand.
And they provide those straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth quotes that lend your article credibility, merit and liveliness.
If you’re a journalist or copywriter, interviews are an inevitable part of your work. But you don’t have to approach the process with fear. Because interviewing is not a mysterious art conferred at birth along with an extroverted personality.
It’s a skill, with a practical methodology that anyone can learn.
7 tips for easy and successful interviews
No matter how awkward you feel about interviewing, you can come away with the information, anecdotes and quotes you need—by taking the following steps:
- Do your research. Whether you’re interviewing a surgeon, chef, industry expert or celebrity, your interviewees share a common characteristic: They’re busy. So don’t waste their time asking redundant questions. Prepare for your interview by thoroughly researching the person, her industry and her expertise. Your research will start online, but may also include books, articles, profiles, biographies, company collateral and other materials. From these sources, gather all the hard facts, dates and numbers you can—you don’t want to bother your interviewee with questions she’s answered over and over again.
- Identify the interview’s purpose and context. Why are you interviewing this person? The answer’s not always self-evident. On the surface, your purpose may be to satisfy your editor’s imperatives, pepper internal communications with names and quotes, or sprinkle the magic fairy dust of celebrity name-dropping over your story. Dig deeper. Go back to your research and start a rough mind map or outline. How can your interview add new dimension, insight and color to your material?
- Schedule the interview. A few scheduling pointers:
- Decide interview logistics . Will you interview in person? On the phone? By email? If you have time, in-person interviews always yield richest results. But busy schedules and travel time often make phone interviews necessary. As a last resort, interview by email. But be warned: Email interviews generally yield less complete information and rarely deliver colorful, interesting quotes. People tend to edit and rewrite email responses, bleeding the liveliness out of them. Or, conversely, they truncate responses or skip questions altogether.
- Allow advance time for scheduling. Don’t wait until the last minute to schedule interviews: Your interviewee is busy and must fit your interview into a packed work/travel/vacation calendar.
- Make your introductory email short and sweet. I like to make first contact with email. Identify yourself, your publication and publish date. Briefly describe—one sentence—your story. Then tell your interviewee why her input is crucial—a little flattery here doesn’t hurt. Suggest two interview dates/times. Give your full contact information—I always include my cell phone number.
- Follow up communications. After scheduling the interview, I send a reminder/follow-up email a few days before the interview. In addition to mentioning the interview date and time, I synopsize the material I plan to cover in the interview.
- Avoid sending questions before the interview. Your interviewee may ask to see a list of questions in advance. Try to avoid sending this at all costs. Here’s why: After reviewing questions, people often over-think queries and deliver wooden and generic responses. But you can, and should, give your interviewee an idea of what you want to cover: “Readers will want to know about your new cardiac procedure and learn about your research and clinical trials.” And be sure to provide a heads-up if you need facts, numbers or dates you couldn’t find through research. Your interviewee will likely require advance notice to gather this kind of hard data.
- Don’t schedule back-to-back interviews. Comprehensive interviews are exhausting. If you must conduct multiple interviews, try to schedule them on separate days. Or at least allow a respite for yourself in between interviews.
- Draft interview questions. If you’ve done your research you’ll know to avoid questions that can be answered at the interviewee’s website or in collateral or press materials. Compose queries to extract new information, different angles or expert opinions. Aim a few questions to reveal human interest and personality. A few more practical considerations:
- Order your questions thoughtfully. Your interviewee is probably as nervous about the meeting as you are. So open the conversation with questions that let her warm up. People like to talk about themselves: Ask how she became interested in her profession and inquire about specialized education and training. If you need to ask difficult or uncomfortable questions, place these queries midway on your list. And, no matter how exhaustive or thorough your inquiries, always end by asking, “Is there anything I didn’t ask that you feel is important?” “Any information you’d like to add?” or “Is there anything readers should know that I didn’t ask?”
- Avoid yes/no answers. Don’t ask questions that can be answered with a grunt, nod or “yes” or “no.”
- Frame questions for your readers. If you write for consumer audiences about medicine, science or technology, your job is to make complex information understandable. This can be tricky when interviewing a medical or industry expert who tends to use scientific language and industry jargon. I find it helpful to preface interview questions with a keep-it-simple request: “Using language the average person can understand, would you explain…” or “In words that a non-medical expert can understand, please share…”
- Ask for a story. You can glean great anecdotes, quotes and human interest angles by asking “Can you tell a story about…” or “Can you share a time when…”
- Conduct the interview. The hour of doom arrives. The following steps make your
walk to the guillotineinterview easier:
- Google your destination ahead of time and print out directions and travel time, or bookmark the Google Directions’ URL on your iPhone or Balckberry.
- Make a checklist to help you remember all the items you need to bring to your interview: Your meeting will run more smoothly if you don’t stress out gathering interview must-haves at the last minute. Make a checklist—I use Evernote and insert check boxes for this. On your list include your Google map/ directions, digital/tape recorder, extra batteries or charger, extra blank tapes if appropriate, notepad, several pens, business cards, a bottle of water and your list of interview questions. How necessary is a checklist? Suffice it to say, I once forgot my list of questions for an important physician interview and had to wing it during the conversation. Make a list.
- Be prompt. Whether face-to-face or on the phone, be on time for interviews. If traveling, allow for traffic or public transportation and parking delays. Plan to arrive 20 minutes early so you can use the restroom, freshen up and present yourself at the reception desk 10 minutes before interview time. If your interviewee needs to be paged for a phone interview—many doctors, for example, stay on the floor until the very last minute—call a few minutes early.
- Take a few deep breaths and relax. If you feel especially jittery remind yourself that this too shall pass. As an actress—my first career—we had a saying: “Eleven o’clock always comes.” It means no matter how unfriendly the audience or bad the show, there’s an endpoint in sight: The curtain will come down. Your interview will come to an end.
- Interview in a quiet place. If your interviewee starts talking to you in the reception area, or you hear distracting noise outside the room, politely ask to move or close the door.
- Record the conversation. Unlike ace old-school reporters, I get frazzled trying to talk, listen and scribble longhand during interviews. I prefer to give my full attention to my subject. That’s why a tape or digital recorder is indispensable to me. Make sure you test your recorder before the interview and try to have a back-up in case of technical failure. (OCD confession: I use two recorders during interviews.) Put fresh batteries in your recorder or make sure it’s fully charged. Always inform your interviewee that you will record the interview. Place the recorder on a desk or table close to your subject and point the microphone toward her. Make sure the recorder sits at an angle that lets you see that it’s running—and check periodically during the interview to make sure it stays running. (You’ll want to be able to note its rolling numbers.) For phone interviews, you can buy an inexpensive adapter—I got mine at Radio Shack for under $10—that connects your phone directly to your recorder.
- Smile. Whether the interview is face-to-face or by phone. I firmly believe the warmth of your smile transmits across phone lines. Thank your interviewee for making time to speak with you.
- Shut up and listen. The interview is not about you. Your subject may raise issues of keen interest to you. Matters about which you could—and would love to—endlessly talk. Don’t. Smile, nod, encourage, but don’t dominate the conversation. Remember why you’re there: To glean the information and quotes you need to serve and support your story.
- Go ahead and look stupid. If you don’t get the answer, quote or information you need, don’t be afraid to repeat your question. Rephrase and re-angle it slightly and ask until you get what you need. Always be polite, cheerful and doggedly patient—even if your subject starts to get annoyed. Who cares if she thinks you’re thick as a post? Did you get the information you need? Good.
- Review and transcribe the recording. My friend, Louise Tutelian, a veteran New York Times reporter, knows—right in the middle of her interview—when she hears the quote she needs. She simply notes the rolling number on the recorder. When she starts drafting, she fast forwards to the numerical point she noted on the recorder and pulls out her quote. If only it were that easy for me, but it’s not: I need to transcribe all or part of the interview. Occasionally I use transcription services. But more often I transcribe the recording myself, especially when dealing with medical and scientific subjects. Transcription time gives me another chance to immerse myself in—and better understand—the material.
- Highlight cherry quotes. I print out my transcription and use a yellow marker to highlight key information and quotes. This makes them easy to slot into your mind map or outline—or quickly find when you need additional material as you draft.
Interviewing is highly personal. Likely you’ve developed a methodology that works well for you. So, as a good interviewer, let me ask you, Is there anything on this list I didn’t include? Is there anything you can add to help readers conduct better interviews?
Please share your favorite interview tips.