Planning and Executing An Interview

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.

Please leave a comment.

© 2008 by Laverne Daley
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8 Comments on “Planning and Executing An Interview”

  1. Peggy says:

    Hey thanks. Very good suggestions.

    I have an interview next week and the PR person will be there as well. So, that’s different for me.

  2. Oh, Peggy, how do you handle interviews with PR people present? I remember one where the PR man disrupted the interview at several points by advising the interviewee not to answer some important questions. At the very least, I think that a third person at the interview makes it hard to develop a sense of rapport with the individual being interviewed. For that reason, when setting things up, now I always request a one-on-one interview. So far, no one has denied that request.

  3. Peggy says:

    Laverne, I guess I didn’t realize the PR person was going to be there until right before she hung up. She said, “We’ll see you there.” I’ve never done an interview with the PR person there before. Of course, it’s a friendly article. I’m not writing an expose! It will be a learning experience for me.

    Thanks though. I never thought to ask for a one-on-one interview.

  4. I’m sure you’ll have a very good interview, Peggy. “We’ll see you there” might just have been a pleasant way for her to end the phone call and she might not expect to be present for the interview.
    The interview I told you about was at a giant Memphis company and the PR director (a former reporter himself) seemed to take pleasure in making things tough for reporters. My article was a feature on a small area of the company but the PR man objected to some very ordinary questions. He has since gone on to his heavenly reward and I understand the present PR people at the company are much more reporter friendly now. Your experience next week will be very satisfactory, I feel sure. Please come back here after your interview and tell us about it.

  5. Peggy says:

    Ok, I will. I’m pretty sure the PR person is going to be there.

    Thanks!

  6. Laura says:

    great article. I am very old-fashioned in that I take notes with a pencil (my form of shorthand) because every time I’ve tried to trust a recorder it never worked as it should. I would also add it’s always good to ask a very unexpected question, something that lets the person think a moment, maybe smile or reflect about something that matters to them. Because as you said, the best quotes can come at the unexpected times.

    This is unrelated, but a question I’d like to pose: I’m realizing I could use a refresher on web writing (everything from email blasts to web sites to whatever comes next) and I’d like to know if anyone has come across a conference or symposium somewhere on the subject…I’m of course searching the web but if anyone has any thoughts, post them!

    Thanks, Laverne!

  7. ldaley says:

    Laura:
    I do like your bit about asking an unexpectged question and waiting for the person to think,reflect and come up with something that matters to them. Great idea. I’ll be doing an interview soon (at our old alma mater!) and I’m going to try it then. Thank you!

    About your question on a web writing conference or symposisum, I’ve put it into a separate post because I think people read posts more often than they read comments. Hope we get lots of feedback on this. Stay tuned.

  8. Peggy says:

    Hey. The interview was fine. The PR person stayed out of it like you said. She just sent photos and asked if I needed anything else.


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