Interviews provide writers with the meat ‘n’ potatoes for personality profiles and spice for articles about topics other than the interviewee. Quotations, insights and asides you get during interviews can ignite a spark of life in articles, setting your work apart from ho-hum encyclopedic rehashes.
Doing the Homework
Find someone unusual about whom others would enjoy reading. My most delightful interview was with my 53-year-old neighbor, a falconer. I sold an article about falconry to a retirement magazine. To learn how to land a chat with a big shot go to http://goo.gl/tdX8ip
Before interviewing someone, research that person thoroughly. Read newspapers, magazines, press releases, text books and, yes, encyclopedias (online and otherwise). Gather basic facts, unique insights and opposing views before interviewing the key person. Get info from the person’s admirers and detractors.
Thorough research yields advantages. First, you’ll be challenged to come up with questions that aren’t answered already in common sources and websites.
The second advantage of research is being able to pose deep questions to penetrate beneath rehearsed “party line” responses. This sets you apart from amateurs.
When I asked the director of a national association what she thought about newspaper articles alleging the government wasted money using her firm’s services, she responded vehemently and in detail. She obviously wanted to set the record straight. Had I not researched, I wouldn’t have known about the allegation.
After thoroughly digging up the goods on your target, you’re ready to request an interview. Libraries and search engines are excellent resources. To write a business article about consulting, I found potential interviewees’ addresses in an index of consultants. For another assignment, I called the Malaysian Embassy to locate expatriate Malaysians willing to talk about their experiences in a foreign country. Each person led me to another resource. I packed the article with anecdotes.
I always tell the person the purpose of my article, the magazine I will submit the article to and the audience. I also state the benefits of published articles to interviewees, their organization or pet causes.
Conducting the Interview
If a prospective interviewee is reluctant to cooperate, probe his or her reasons. The president of an international company finally agreed to an interview contingent upon two ground rules: that I wouldn’t portray his employees as being foolish (which hadn’t occurred to me, but told me something about his fears) and that no proprietary information will be revealed. Fair enough.
Of course, refusal to grant an interview or to answer specific questions is informative in itself. Who among us has not drawn conclusions about the harried politician who uttered, “No comment,” as he ducked into his limousine?
Some questions solicit yes/no and one-word responses, however, most questions should be open ended. Open-ended questions begin with What, Why and How. Ask: How does that compare to . . . ? What is your reaction to …? What misconception do people have about . . . ? Why do you want to change? What else would you like to say?
Reflective phrases like “It sounds as if you’re dissatisfied,” and “You’re saying your life changed at that point,” keep dialogue flowing. Allow pauses. They indicate the person is thinking and might elaborate upon a point.
In the 1960s David Attenborough visited Australian aborigines. In The Quest Under Capricorn he described his interview technique: “I tried not to ask leading questions, nor to force the story into a neat plot; not to require happenings to have causes nor to connect events into the logical sequence of action and consequence demanded by our own fictions.”
While you want to remain open, as Attenborough did, you also want to focus the conversation. So if your subject prattles about her Siamese cat, ask, “How does that tie in with your Pulitzer Prize?” Then again, maybe you can submit an article to a cat fanciers’ magazine.
Some authors advise against taking notes in the presence of interviewees. Others, like me, must take notes during the interview. I jot key phrases, not a word-for-word transcript. Your preferred note-taking method depends on your memory retention.
I was in a restaurant interviewing a corporate leader. The server interrupted ten times. It was difficult asking questions while slurping linguini. Espresso jangled my taut nerves. We quibbled about who should pay the bill. But, clever me, I recorded the interview, freeing my hands to twirl pasta.
Later I listened to the recorded interview. I heard Muzak, clanking silverware, clinking china and the sometimes discernible voice of my interviewee. A Watergate-like gap in conversation was testimony to technical problems.
If possible, hang out with the person on different days. Conduct at least one interview on the person’s turf so you can describe his or her interactions in a typical environment. Choose quiet settings – a hotel lobby, an office – and for the second interview, do something fun and physical as the writers for Men’s Health do. I got vital details when I went falconing with my neighbor. Finally, learn to use recording gadgets with a spy’s proficiency.
You can conduct interviews and follow up questions via telephone, email, or send a questionnaire to be completed. Include adequate return postage for snail mailed interviews.
I always ask interviewees what questions they have. Invariably people ask, “When will the article be published?” and “Will you send me a copy of it?” The answers are, respectively, “I don’t know,” and “Of course!”
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