Guest blogger Cindy Kalinoski edited the non-fiction book Leg Up The Courage to Dream, a 2013 Award-Winning Finalist of the USA Best Book Awards, sponsored by USA Book News. Cindy provides writing, editing, copywriting and proofreading services as The Word Helper. She also created. The English Makeover Cindy has written for National Geographic, Dale Carnegie, YORK International, Penn State University, and Susquehanna Style magazine, among others.
The Art of Interviewing
Journalism—whether it’s for news or for a company piece—is about getting the real story. The story behind the story. What we writers call “back story”. That, along with good writing, is what makes reading an article interesting…or not.
Suppose you are writing a profile about someone. How do you know what to ask? How do you find out what really drives him? How do you get her really talking? First, consider that the art of interviewing is about more than just the interview; it’s also about research. It’s about asking questions and listening and recording, but research will take you a long way toward an article people can’t put down.
So research your subject. Google her. Find out everything you can from the person who asked you to write the article. If your subject is less than forthcoming, tell her thank you and that you’ll call her back with more questions in a day or two and maybe a third time. She may become more responsive and will have thought about what she can share with you. Meanwhile, ask for the name of a friend or colleague and get some quotes about your subject from that person, and ask him or her what topics you should raise.
Next, you’ll want to generate questions, some of which will surface from your research. If he has done something extraordinary, like invented an app that made him millions, learn what you can online. If she has volunteered at a homeless shelter, look up the shelter and find out whether their rules make volunteering there challenging. Look at where the shelter is located and check out Google maps’ street view to see if she’s putting herself in danger every time she goes. Come up with some open-ended questions. Ask, for instance, what or who has influenced her. What are his favorite life experiences? What does she do when she gets off work?
This will lead naturally to passion. What really drives a profile article is communicating a person’s passion, and first you have to find out what it is. When you go after this, use different words. We’ve all heard people say, “It’s my passion”. Get creative. Ask if she thinks it’s her calling. Her purpose. Ask why he likes doing it. Prompt him to express it in new ways. That goes for every answer you get; try to encourage the person to say something quotable by rephrasing what they say and asking if that’s what they mean. Ask questions in fresh ways. If you’re lucky, you can feed her a quote and she’ll repeat it.
A note here about listening. Most of us—at least Americans—spend a lot of our time talking or at least me-too’ing when people talk. Resist this with every cell you have. If you insert your own experience, it can knock your subject off his train of thought and stop him from talking. You can insert little sounds of agreement, but do not steal the narrative.
Hand in hand with listening is recording. Don’t depend on your memory. Have a method of recording—heck, have two if possible. Use your cell phone’s voice recorder app, take notes by hand or bring your laptop (or slap some headphones on for a phone interview) and type like a fiend. Don’t worry about spelling, and throw punctuation out the office door. Just close your eyes and type as fast as your poor fingers can fly. Later you’ll be able to piece together what you typed. One advantage to this method is that you won’t have to transcribe your notes, and you’ll have great word-for-word quotes.
One final hint: don’t put your pen down (or stop typing) until you have actually hung up the phone or gotten in your car to leave. People tend to get more quotable when they think the interview is over. Don’t miss these gems.
You’ll get at the heart of the matter best by researching, listening, and asking compelling questions. Best of all, you’ll find that a good interview—or several—will make writing your profile a whole lot easier.