I was recently asked to conduct a workshop for student writers on how to conduct a journalistic-type interview. Below is a list of tips I offered.
Identify your story and goals for the interview. Decide on an angle and identify what you need to complete your story prior to setting up any interviews. Think through the keys to information gathering — the five Ws and one H (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How) — and what you need to get those questions answered.
Know the platform you are writing for, its writing style, and what assets you need for your story. For a listicle, you will want to gather “snackable” content and quotes. For longer-form articles, you may need to include data points, a list of resources, a sidebar of information, or additional research. Also identify hyperlinks to include and curate photos and/or video, especially for use online or on social media.
Contact the person you want to interview. Try to find out what method of communication works for the interviewee prior to reaching out. In your communication, ask when a good time would be to do the interview and tell them when your story deadline is. Be polite and professional. Ex: Identify yourself, who you are with, and why you want to conduct an interview with them.
Try to set up the interview in person. If this isn’t possible, then set up a phone interview or find out if they are open to trying Google Hangout or Facetime video meeting. Allow for at least 30 minutes to conduct the interview; possibly an hour if they have that much time available. It’s better to have more time, than not enough.
Prepare for the interview and brainstorm a list of questions. Do your research in advance, and prepare a list of questions to ask your interview subject. The more specific your questions are, the better. Never ask questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. You want to ask open-ended questions to prompt your interviewee to talk.
Be on time and select a location ideal for your subject. Arrive at your interview with plenty of time to spare. Try to interview in a place that has some relevance to the story or your subject, which will make them feel more comfortable and open to speaking with you. Try to avoid places such as loud coffee shops or restaurants with a lot of distractions. Remind the interviewee about the purpose of the interview before you begin.
For the interview: bring a pen, notebook, your questions, a recording device, and a camera. Make sure to take diligent notes. If you wish to take notes electronically, use an unobtrusive device and ask permission if you are recording the interview. You will want to refrain from creating a physical “barrier” between you and the interviewee. If you do use a laptop, attempt to make good eye contact. You don’t need to write down everything that was said, but take down the highlights. You should use a recording device to backup your notes; most smartphones can do that fairly easily.
Discuss with your editor/manager ahead of time about what kind of photography is needed for your story. You may be able to take a photo with your cell phone, use a headshot that’s available on the web, or you may need to schedule a photo shoot. If you are going to take your own photos, always ask permission of the subject before you proceed. Also, collect photo or video release forms from them.
Listen, be courteous and don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions. It’s OK to ask for an explanation or for them to clarify a response if you don’t understand what they are saying. It’s okay to depart from your prepared questions and follow the flow of the conversation as long as it supports what you need for your story. Let the conversation flow naturally. Listen carefully and actively to what the subject is saying, as it could lead to additional questions and interesting insights.
Gather background notes to add color to your story. Take notes about the location, the sounds you hear, and what is happening around you. If the article is a profile, you can include what the person looked like or what they are wearing. If the interview is in an office, make notes of what is on the walls or on the desk. Ask about any object that interests you, as you may find some good stories.
Always confirm personal information. Confirm the spelling of their name, job title and (for student interviews) their major(s) and graduation year, as well as city/state where they’re from. Also, ask each interviewee their preferred pronouns.
Don’t be afraid of awkward silences. It may seem counterintuitive, but most people like to fill the space with talking and may reveal something more intimate about themselves in that moment. Ask your question and then stop and see what happens.
Keep asking for what you need, even if it means you have to revisit questions. If you don’t feel like your questions or topics are being answered, you may need to re-ask the question and word it a little differently. It can be frustrating at times, but sometimes you have to ask again and keep trying.
Save any sensitive or more personal questions until the end. If it’s a sensitive subject, ask the interviewee some softball questions to warm up, and then you can get to the more serious questions later on in the interview when they are more comfortable. That’s your best opportunity to build rapport with your subject and hopefully get what you need.
Ask the “gift” question. Always end your interview with this very simple question: “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” This is called the “gift” question, because often times the best quotes or nuggets for your story come at this moment. Most interview subjects will also use this as an opportunity to reshare their key messages.
Review your notes for accuracy. Immediately after the interview, give yourself 15 minutes to write down your immediate thoughts/reflection/ideas about the interview that just took place. At home, expand on your notes or do additional research to make sure all of the information you gathered is correct. If you have any follow-up questions or need to clarify points, decide if you want to reach back out. Most interviewees don’t mind a few additional questions, and many times we need to go back to the interviewee to confirm quotes. This is where a recording of the interview will come in handy.
You did it — now it’s time to write! With your interviews done, your research gathered, and your story assets selected, all you have left to do is to write. Remember the audience you are writing for, what their interests are, and the platform for your story. You’ve got the tools you need, now you just need to pull it together. Best of luck!