Hate making interviews? Here are 12 Tips from the Pros . . .

Although it’s not uncommon for celebrities or politicians to say they hate giving interviews, if truth be told, there are copywriters and journalists who hate making interviews, as well.

For some months now, I’ve been interviewing colleagues and friends for an upcoming e-book on creatives. And interviews are the lifeblood of business writing as well as of journalism. Veteran American journalists Mike Wallace (of “60 Minutes”) and Beth Knobel (lecturer at Fordham University) have written a primer that I’ve found helpful: Heat & Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists (NY: Three Rivers, 2010). Here are 12 tips for making better interviews that lead to better articles. I’m adapting these myself, as I work:


(1) Prepare 50 (I’d say 20, depending on scope of the interview) questions arising from background research on your interviewee. Do this in order to be fully familiar with the topic. And be prepared to digress from your prepared set of questions, if more interesting lines of inquiry arise.

(2) Address the “why” and “so what” of the interviewee’s life or issues, as well as the “how, where and when.”

(3) Be sure to make your questions open-ended ones. Ones that can’t be answered with a simple yes/no. Open-ended questions are more likely to provide an interesting quotation for your article. And don’t ask questions that give the interviewee a choice, as it will give “box in” your interviewee and give them an “easy out” (64). For instance, don’t ask this: “Were you at the scene of the accident or did you arrive after it happened?”

(4) From Scott Pelley (of “60 Minutes”), try to keep questions to no longer than six words—direct and to-the-point. Remove subordinate clauses and convoluted syntax: they only allow the interviewee to get off on a side-track and lose the point of your question. Good questions show that you’ve done your homework. But they do so, quietly. (Don’t quote the interviewee back to themselves, when referring to their work or opinions.)

(5) Establish rapport by chatting a little before the formal part of the interview. Talk based on a shared sense of purpose, backgrounds or interests. You can refer to common acquaintances or friends who think highly of your interviewee as a way of building rapport. Keep in mind that shared race and gender may help to establish rapport.

(6) If the material is difficult, use the “repeating” technique of clarifying essential information on a topic that is new to you: “Let me see if I’ve got this right . . . ,”  you can say. By repetition (and potential correction by the interviewee), you’ll end up more accurately depicting the complex material.

(7) Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions, if it’s called for: rapport is important, but interviewing is no popularity contest. (It’s important to realize, however, that copywriting is often more partisan in its stance than journalism.)

(8) While the questions are a useful starting point, it’s usually in the follow-up to one of the questions that the interviewee reveals the greatest insights. So be prepared to go off script.

(9) Be sure to listen carefully, even as you’re taking notes and plotting the next question you’ll ask.

(10) To help focus a story, use five questions developed by writing instructor Chip Scanlon (from the Poynter Institute): (i) What’s the news? (ii) What’s the story (i.e. the angle you’ll be taking in your article)? (iii) What’s the image (if there’s an image from a photo or video about the story)? (iv) How can I tell this story in six words (tough but useful to do)? (v) So what (why should your audience care)?

You can start with this kind of focus and move out to “who, what, where, when, why and how.”

(11) Imagine telling the story you’re writing to a friend or relative before you actually write. This is important because we all have natural instincts for storytelling, whether we call it journalism or copywriting or by another name. As veteran US journalist (and author) Tom Brokaw says, “It’s all storytelling, you know. That’s what journalism is all about.”

(12) Ask the interviewee at the close of the interview if there’s anything s/he would like to add. Then also ask for your interviewee’s contact information (cell number or email address) to keep communication going, after the interview is done. (This could be helpful if you want to check facts with your interviewee, prior to publication.) Just as you shouldn’t be the first to hang up from a telephone job interview, don’t be the first person to put down the phone or leave the room. (Unless the interviewee is pressed for time, that is.) Send a thank you note or email (of only 2-3 lines), afterward.

Do you interview subjects regularly for your creative projects? Would these tips help? Let me know what other strategies you find useful and for what contexts. I’d be delighted to broaden this discussion.


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