A good number of different types of articles will call for interviews—one or many. So no matter what kind of writing you want to do, you will need to learn how to conduct an effective interview. Your goal will be to get all the information you want or need in as short a time as possible. That can only be accomplished if you know what to ask and how to ask it.
Following are a few key guidelines for effective interviewing:
- Interview the subject in person if possible. A lot of what you will learn will be visual—things you will miss if you don’t actually see the subject.
- Decide on the best location for the interview—his home? His office? Your office? A neutral location? Not a noisy restaurant. Pick a place where the subject will be most comfortable and with the fewest distractions.
- If they are not available in person, it can be done by phone. Call ahead and make an appointment for when you can call back with your questions. The last resort might be to send them a list of questions to answer and return to you.
- Learn all you can about the subject ahead of time so you don’t waste time asking questions on background and family that you can easily find elsewhere.
- Allow plenty of time—1/2 hour to 2 hours for an article.
- Take a tape recorder (with extra tapes and batteries), and be sure you can operate it easily. However, don’t depend on it exclusively; take notes too. If recording a phone interview, ask the subject for their permission to do so.
- Write out 4 to 6 main questions ahead of time, and have related questions in your head. But don’t get bogged down in your questions. Listen to what the subject has to say and base your next question on their last answer or comment—not on what’s next on your list.
- Pay attention to what you see in the room (if you’re on their turf), and break the ice by talking with them about that—rather than jumping right into your questions. Try to put them at ease. If you are relaxed, it is more likely that they will be.
- Avoid disagreeing or arguing with the subject. You are there to find out who they are and how they think or feel on the issues—whether you agree or not.
- Generally you move from the simple, non-threatening questions to the harder issues, but you need to be sensitive to where they want to start and the direction they want to go. However, don’t let them sabotage the interview by avoiding the questions or issues you came for; interrupt them an get them back on track if you need to. Never ask questions that have Yes or No answers—that may be all you will get from some people.
- Avoid asking direct questions that may upset them, by rephrasing them in less threatening ways, such as, “How do you answer your critiques when they say…?” Your questions should nudge them in the direction you want them to go—questions that revel their feelings, values, and unique point of view.
- If you are having trouble getting a handle on who this person is, ask a question like, “If I were to ask your boss (wife, children, pastor) to describe you in one sentence, what would they say?”
- Use your notebook to record your visual observations: locale description, appearance/dress, mannerisms, gestures, body language, interaction or relationship to any others in the room, etc.
- Before closing the interview, check your list to be sure you covered everything you planned to. Also ask permission to call with follow-up questions if you missed or lost anything of importance, or need to verify facts.
- Some subjects will ask to see the finished article before it is published. It is best not to show them, as they will always want you to change something. Tell them that you have a policy not to do so, but you will verify all technical information and direct quotes before it goes to press. Let them know when and where it will be published—either at the end of the interview or as soon as you know, and promise to send a copy.
- For many profiles you will need photographs (see the next section for information on how to get those).
It is best to write up the interview as soon as possible, while the things you didn’t write down are fresh in your mind. It is usually not necessary to transcribe the entire tape; just those parts that have important quotes.