One of the first interviews I conducted in the field as a features writer, I had been a writer-journalist for six years. But at a desk. Being out in the field was so much different. There was the notebook, the tape recorder, the balancing of notebook and the tape recorder as I walked with my interview subject during the tour of his business.
There was balancing all that and then the dictation for the exact quotes, the mindful tracking of where I walked AND my interviewee’s comments, to be at the ready with the next appropriate question! There was the… the… the… (brown paper bag, please).
I thought I was going to hyperventilate when I got back in my car. It was so much to track!
And then, of course, like from some journalism textbook case study, when I got home and listened to the tape, the last 15 minutes of the interview were cut off. At least I felt relief that, having listened to everything my Reporting 1 prof — an adjunct instructor from The Detroit News — had told me, I had taken careful written notes, even while using the recorder.
These days, I use a laptop for all my sit-down interviews, typing my interviewee’s comments directly into a Word file, rarely using a recorder and using a dictation pad minimally, for the walking interviews and for taking detail notes on scene/setting.
So, a lot has changed in the technology and mechanics I use to conduct interviews, but not much in how I conduct them. The basics are all the same because people haven’t changed much. They still like to tell their stories, and they do it really well when prompted with good questions.
Here are the top tips I’ve learned from nearly two decades of interviews:
1. Start with the easy questions. Those are usually the informational ones. Even the most seasoned interview subjects seem to visibly relax when all they need to do is spell their first and last name and provide their title, if appropriate to the story.
2. Use your interviews mostly for open-ended questions. By doing good background research, you can minimize the close-ended informational questions, to have more time with your experts getting either their perspective or personal viewpoints unavailable elsewhere.
3. Plan for a 20-minute interview. Busy people get busier, and the promise of 45 minutes can evaporate at the time of the sit-down. Craft a lean set of questions that can be answered in 20 minutes.
4. List the questions in order of importance. See Number 3. Type the ones you must get answered at the top. You never know when you’ll be cut off.
5. Ask follow-up questions that help you understand. For you to be able to write a good story, you have to understand not only how something happened but why. Likewise, you need detail. Active listening finds those places the interviewee omits information that you need to vividly recreate story.
For example, “My first business failed after I left college, and then my second business was a hit.” The quick information questions for recreating story in your article stack up in that statement, if your background research didn’t reveal this information and you know it to be important: How soon after college did you start the first business? In what type of business? And the second? When? And then comes the perspective questions of why? And what did you learn from closing one business to opening the next?
6. Ask more than you think you need. Yes, I know, I just said you may have only 20 minutes, but writing a story is like filming a movie — you need more minutes filmed to splice into a final cut. Even as you must be lean, ask more information in those areas you think you’ll need more detail. The story starts to get crafted in the field, but the final reckoning comes back at your desk, when it’s just you, your computer and your notes.
7. Discard the questions from your list that become irrelevant. Mentally, and quickly, discard the questions that have already been answered through the process of the interview.
8. Don’t let the interview run away with you. Being intimate with the information you need answered before you settle in allows you to gently but purposefully steer the interview back to where you need it when a person ends a sentence during a tangent. There are dozens of ways to safely, politely segue. “That reminds me, when you said before….” And the like.
9. Yield the stage. Interviews are mostly one-way conversations. Chiming in with your own opinions, observations and perspective takes up precious time but also confuses your purpose for being there.
10. Practice strategic silence. It is amazing what people will say when there is silence. Especially at the end of the interview. Some of my best quotes, and information, have come from that moment interviewees think the interview is over, and they just keep talking.