Do your interviews feel like you’re pulling teeth? Do you envy your fellow writer, who gleans information from subjects as if through some mystic telepathic connection? Interviewing skills consist of equal parts natural ability and learned technique. Here are a few tips to warm you up on the technique part.
1. Prepare yourself ahead of time. What information are you looking for? Who is the best person to give you that information? Don’t go into the interview without a clear idea of your own purpose.
2. Prepare a list of the basic questions you want answered. This will serve as an outline for your interview, so you’re not grasping for or forgetting key questions in the midst of the conversation.
3. Ask open-ended questions. To make sure your questions are worded in an open-ended manner, practice asking them out loud and determine if they can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” If so, you need to re-word them to elicit a more expansive response.
4. Make sure each question is only asking one question. Avoid complicated questions that require your subject to think in more than one direction at once. Keep them simple, and keep them coming as your subject speaks.
5. If possible, call ahead and schedule a time for the interview. This will allow your subject time to prepare. “On-the-spot” interviews often take people off-guard, and the responses you receive will usually not be as thoughtful or valuable.
6. Tell your subject what you’re writing about, what information you hope to gain from the interview, and why you’re contacting this particular person. This will allow the interviewee a chance to prepare him/herself for your questions and plan how he/she will answer.
7. Make sure you’re prepared to take accurate notes, whatever your method may be. If you’ll be writing notes, make sure you have adequate paper and bring more than one pen – they have a tendency to run out of ink. If you’ll be recording the interview, bring more than enough tapes and make sure your batteries are fresh.
8. Take a few minutes for small talk at the beginning of the interview. Chatting and maybe sharing a laugh or two helps to relax the interviewee, and the more relaxed with you he/she is, the better responses you will receive. An easy way to get chatting is to ask the interviewee if he/she has any questions before you begin.
9. Listen to your subject. This involves more than just writing down what he/she says. Maintain eye contact as much as possible, nod to show understanding, smile when appropriate. Respond to your subject as if you’re having an ordinary conversation, not an interrogation.
10. Don’t be afraid to stray from your prepared questions or even off the topic of the interview. Interview subjects often get talking and end up providing relevant information you may not have expected. And again, approaching the interview as a conversation and allowing it to meander a bit also aids in relaxing the interviewee.
11. If you don’t completely understand a response, ask for clarification, even if it’s a minor detail – particularly on the spellings of names and places. Accuracy in recording an interviewee’s comments is essential in good writing, and is much less embarrassing than running a correction.
12. When you’re finished asking your questions, ask if there’s anything you didn’t ask that the interviewee would like to talk about. This opens up the possibility for valuable comments you may not have thought of ahead of time, and is an unexpected opportunity for the interviewee to talk about what he/she feels is most relevant to the topic. This question also serves as a transition into the closing of the interview.
13. Before you end the interview, thank your subject and ask if you can get back in contact later if needed. Then thank him/her again. While most people tend to be flattered at the opportunity to be quoted, the interviewee is still doing you the bigger favor. Remember that.
14. Go over your notes as soon as possible, while the interview is still fresh in your mind. You may realize you haven’t noted something of importance, or you may notice areas of uncertainty where further questions are needed.
15. If necessary, follow up with your subject and ask any additional clarifying questions. Then thank him/her again, and write your story.