Planning and Executing An InterviewPosted: March 26, 2008
A writer friend who has had several sales under his belt is getting a little nervous about an upcoming interview, his first big interview for a piece aimed at a national magazine. An email he sent me revealed that he is concerned “that I am going to forget something or screw it up.” He asked for suggestions for planning and executing the perfect interview.
I don’t know that I’ve ever planned and executed a perfect interview. I’ve had my share of disasters, including once when my digital recorder failed to capture even one word of the interview (which is why I now use my old reliable tape recorder only. I also take lots of notes on yellow legal pads during interviews).
I’ve learned these things about interviewing:
*Take along extra tapes and batteries.
*Do your homework ahead of time (birth places, dates, education, published items) so you won’t waste time with answers you can learn on your own.
*Prepare at least 30 questions for a 45-minute interview. Make them pertinent to the kind of article you intend to write. You may think of others questions to ask during the course of the interview.
*Start with general conversation to set the stage for the interview (the weather, mutual acquaintances, a picture on the wall, an award or other object on display).
*Don’t ask questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no.”
*Don’t be afraid to let the person being interviewed wander off the subject (some great quotes come up that way).
*If things get too far afield, don’t hesitate to bring the interview back to the subject you want discussed. If you lose track of a long tale he’s relating, ask him to put it in chronological order.
*Zero in on answers that could produce colorful details. Ask for specifics whenever possible — if he talks about his first car, find out the make, model and color and why he remembers it so well. If she has a pet, is it a Persian cat or a Jack Russell terrier and what is its name? Is his favorite food prime rib or down-home cooking? Who inspired her to take flying lessons as a teenager? If she hates camping, find out why. Details can make your interviewee come alive for the reader.
*Keep yourself out of the interview. The article you intend to write will be about the person you are interviewing, so there is no need to offer your personal observations. Stay focused on the other person.
*Near the end of the interview, I always ask, “Is there anything else I should have asked?” Sometimes the person being interviewed will volunteer information that I may not have thought of asking about.
*Don’t turn off the recorder when you stand up to leave. I’ve found that I get some of my best quotes after the interview seems to be over.
*Later, send a thank you note or email to the person who granted you the interview. Tell them the publication date (if you know it), and make sure they get a copy of the article when it’s published. Your editor can arrange for this but sometimes you have to remind them.
*Most of all, just be yourself during the interview. Remember, an interview is a conversation between two people. When you’re relaxed and enjoying the interview, you’ll get the best information and the best quotes. And that will translate into an article that readers will enjoy.
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