Research your subject and use that knowledge. Author Bill Warner, whose articles on model aviation have appeared in publications in the United States, England and France, does extensive research before interviews. He refers to related newspaper and magazine articles, press kits and the person’s Web site, if any. He also talks to people who may know the potential interviewee.
All of this can help in formulating a list of questions you want to ask. The person may be an expert from whom you need facts, statistics or an authoritative opinion. Knowing something about the subjects–their work, talent or whatever makes them special in your eyes–can open doors to a great interview. People love talking about themselves, and your subject will share more if you show you care enough to do advance research.
Don’t be afraid to send a few questions in advance. I once interviewed a famous author who was media-shy. He had been burned by being misquoted in another interview and felt he had been depicted unfairly. By faxing him a short list of three to five questions, showing him the general direction I was heading with my article, I eased his fears and got my interview. Doing this can give your subjects a chance to consider a few responses in advance and reduce some of their own nervousness. Shojai, who interviews almost exclusively by phone, says that she doesn’t mind the subject knowing questions in advance, because the answers are usually more usable when the subject is “calm, collected and prepared.”
Choose open-ended questions that require some thought in answering, A question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” is going to make for a very short and dull interview.
E-mailed interviews are gaining in popularity. Yasmine Galenorn, author of numerous metaphysical books, including Embracing the Moon, finds that e-mailed answers allow for more detail, rather than just a few short quips. She feels e-mail allows the person “to think about what the questions mean to them and to elaborate on things they otherwise might gloss over when they are fumbling for quick answers.” If time is an issue and you are having difficulties reaching the person for a phone interview, e-mail may be the answer for you.
Interview with your readers in mind. Having been trained in religious history, I began my own writing career in the Christian press, doing mainly historical and travel pieces and interviewing leading religious figures. When I decided to expand my markets to include secular publications, the learning curve was steep. My audience changed, and it was important to find out who my readers were so I could interview with questions of interest to them. Are you writing for a popular women’s magazine? A science bimonthly? A children’s newsletter? Vocabulary, slant and tone will differ in each case, and the best way to prepare is to read past issues of the magazines you intend to write for.
Consider the publication’s demographics when formulating and asking questions. To whom are the advertisements geared? A trade or specialty periodical may be more technical, while a consumer magazine may be a lighter read and more service-oriented. Knowing your market will help you ask the kinds of questions your readers want answered. And don’t be afraid to ask your subjects for clarification if their answers are too technical, vague or jargon-filled.
Develop an easy rapport with your subject. Dress comfortably and professionally, so you feel at ease. If you’re tense because you just noticed a button missing, it can throw off the entire interview. If you are well-groomed, the interviewee will take you more seriously. Also, an unkempt appearance can be distracting. The attention should be on the interviewee, not on you.
Remember, you are both human and likely to be somewhat nervous. A warm greeting and some light conversation the first few minutes allows everyone to take a few deep breaths before getting down to business. Giving your undivided attention and positive feedback to their responses will go a long way toward getting the person to loosen up. Your goal is to get them to talk, so don’t hog center stage. If you help them feel comfortable enough to be themselves in your presence, your problem won’t be getting them to open up, but rather, getting them to stop!
Be ready to wing it and deviate from your initial questions. There is a poetry to interviewing that can only be learned by doing it. Sometimes, an interview will change direction as a result of something your subject says. I once interviewed a woman who had recently lost her close friend and had taken over that friend’s business. She shared heartfelt emotions about the extensive process of learning how to run a business in the face of grief. This was unexpected, but turned out to be the highlight of my article. Gems like these could have been missed if I had ignored her wistful sighs or allusions to sorrow. If you clue in to what is being said, you will learn to pick up on body language that bespeaks of powerful stories untold.
Balancing spontaneity with the necessary questions you simply must ask can be a gamble. You will need to trust yourself to wander into uncharted territory. Leaving room for spontaneity can mean the difference between lifeless facts and information borne out of human experience.
Spontaneity can, however, also lead to an interview spinning out of control, where the interviewee’s own agenda snakes its way into the interview. The person may insist on getting colleagues’ names in print, expect to tell you how and what to write, or insist on discussing topics outside your scope. While you want to be courteous and not cut the person off, it is important that you swing the discussion back to the subject at hand. Remember, you are the writer.
Get comfortable with telephone interviews. No doubt about it, there’s no substitute for being there and putting your personal experience and authority to work. But if time and geographical limitations are issues, the telephone is quicker and cheaper than an air ticket. Take detailed notes during the call, or invest in a telephone taping system. Shojai, who interviewed more than 80 experts for her latest book, prefers telephone interviewing and swears by her tape-transcription machine, which has a phone coupler that allows both sides of the conversation to be taped. With headset and foot pedal for transcription ease, it is an ideal tool for a writer who often interviews by phone.
If you interview infrequently, less expensive equipment–even a regular tape recorder placed beside your speakerphone–can suffice. Regardless of which machine you use, be sure to also take notes as an emergency backup.
Kelly James-Enger, a lawyer turned freelance writer, found her written notes invaluable when her handheld tape recorder failed to record during a phone interview. (See article about recording snafus on page 42.) She was faced with a nightmarish 30 minutes of dead air on the tape. With note-taking skills honed during years of legal hearings and depositions, she was able to piece together the untaped interview with just her own notes.
Be sure to ask the interviewee if it it is OK to tape the call to ensure accuracy. Some states legally require you to tell callers that you are taping them. Legalities aside, it’s also the ethical thing to do.
To tape or to take notes–that is the question. In person, it is preferable to do both. When I sit down with my subjects, I place my tape recorder in the open, off to the side, and ask if they would mind if I tape our conversation, as it would allow me to concentrate on them more fully. No one has ever refused my request. Taping the conversation allows you to watch your subject, focus on what is being said, and clue in to their body language.
Taking notes is especially handy for recording proper names. Don’t guess. Ask for the correct spellings, titles and other factual details.
Equipped with tape recorder, extra batteries, notepads, pens and–if you use them–your calling card, you will show that you are a pro, even if you’re a bit nervous.
Engage with your subject. Emotional connection isn’t always necessary or even desired, but sharing a personal moment can lead to a more rewarding interview.
“The emotional impact adds incredible value to the work,” Shojai believes. “It puts the information in a real-life context with which readers most easily identify.”
I once interviewed a religious leader who was also an author. Our meeting had been originally scheduled for one hour, but our time together stretched to two and a half hours as, afterward, I was invited to see a new chapel built on the property. Entering that serene world for a brief time gave me an additional connection with the author, which helped me write a deeper, more layered feature.
Another time, my interviewee brought his dog to our meeting, and Rover’s presence among us unabashed dog-lovers made for a very easy interview.
Galenorn remembers special emotional moments such as interviewing a female athlete who relayed how she walked the rough final miles of a marathon in memory of leukemia victims. “That was a poignant moment that you just can’t fake or invent,” Galenorn says.
Berridge agrees. “Without the personal moments and emotion, my books would be flat. Human interest is what it’s about.”
Finish up on the right note. All your questions have been answered and the interview is winding down. A great way to end interviews is to ask your interviewees what they would most like readers to know about them, and offer them the chance to add anything that may not have been covered.
Given permission to open up, interviewees can provide unexpected treasures. They may want to clarify earlier impressions or show a softer, more human side. These special moments can add zip to your article.
The end of the interview is also a great time to ask to take photographs, if needed. Pulling out your camera on arrival is likely to make people clench their teeth and turn shy. Few people love having their photos taken, but they will be more willing if you have already shared some time and put them at ease. Thank the interviewee and offer to send a copy of the published article. Follow up with a brief thank-you note.