February 11, 2008 4:49 PM   Subscribe

Help become a better interviewer! From a journalistic point of view, what are your tips or resources that will help me set up, conduct, and edit interviews?

In my new job, I'm interviewing professionals from the entire spectrum of careers and backgrounds, from actors and authors to folks with notable or everyday jobs. I feel like I'm off to a great start, but my I also feel like I'm flying blind and my inexperience is going to catch up with me at a really inconvenient moment.

Most of the interviews I conduct are over email, and they are unsolicited, which means that in most cases I make the first move in approaching the person or their management. Occasionally I interview over the phone. Usually it is I who comes up with the questions, and I often have to edit and selectively quote from my interviews myself to build the final product. Often they are short, consisting of just a few questions, but I'm getting assigned larger pieces lately. I want to put people at ease, give them questions that I know they can answer (yet leave room for surprising answers) and be able to deliver a finished product that satisfies the interviewee, the reader, and my editor.

What advice can you give me to help with any stage of this process?
posted by hermitosis to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You may find my response to a similar question helpful.
posted by Eldritch at 4:58 PM on February 11, 2008

Most of the interviews I did went better when the questions weren't rote. That means staying away from background questions that can be answered with a little research.

Know your subject material: This will help make the interview a conversation.

You know a good interview when it reads with or sounds in a good flow, or rhythm. Back and forth, the topics evolve organically.

When the questions are short and rudimentary, it's more difficult to set up that flow. That's where your skill and intuition as an interviewer comes in.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:01 PM on February 11, 2008

1) read interviews by great interviewers (my favorite is Lawrence Grobel who has several books collecting his interviewers, at least one is a collection of interviews with authors and another with filmmakers/actors)
2) read how-tos from interviewers you admire (Grobel has a book on interviewing, for instance)
3) do your research
4) DON'T misquote people or misrepresent yourself to them. It'll bite you in the ass eventually.
posted by dobbs at 5:02 PM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

For the non-email interviews: LISTEN. When the interviewee is talking, a poor interviewer's mind is racing to come up with the next question. Resist this. Focus on what they're saying. If you have to stammer and stumble to come up with your next question, that's fine. But you probably won't, because it will organically suggest itself because you have listened to what the person has to say, and if the person is worth being interviewed in the first place, every sentence they say to you will contain one or two ideas that you can then explore.

For email interviews: Start by asking yourself why you are interviewing this person, and why the person who will ultimately read your interview/article should care. Avoid exploring the many, many things that will be in the interviewee's CV or resume or bio. Few people care about that. Put yourself in the shoes of your reader, and ask critical questions - why does this person's opinion matter? What is his credential on the topic? What is unique about him? From there, ask the questions that do not appear in the CV or bio.

For business writing: Follow the money! If someone has a new product or service, ask what problem it solves and how that makes the end-user's life better. If someone is discussing some amazing new technology deployment, ask how much it cost and who paid for it and how long before they expect to recoup their investment. Think in terms of the "elevator pitch" - if you only had 30 seconds to convey what is most important about the concept in question, how would you spend those 30 seconds?

For finding sources and interesting perspectives, get a Profnet account. It allows you to easily survey all of the PR agents out there and all of the people they represent. Sure, you have to wade through some BS, but there are gems in there.

Finally, I can't recommend Jack Hart's "A Writer's Coach" strongly enough. Lots of real-world, hard-fought insight from a lifetime newspaperman who has done more than his share of interviews.
posted by jbickers at 5:22 PM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

For phone interviews, I use a mini recorder and a hands-free headset that I can hook up to my cell phone using a device from Radio Shack. Then I can just let interviews turn into a conversation, since I'm not frantically typing. I do sit at my desk though (except once when I interviewed from a canoe), with a list of questions I want to ask, but I don't try and control the agenda too much. Lots of times the best stuff comes out of left field.
posted by Camofrog at 5:36 PM on February 11, 2008

I should add that if you use my method, it's very important to make sure your equipment has fresh batteries and is turned ON and recording while you are talking. And you should transcribe it ASAP just to be safe.
posted by Camofrog at 5:40 PM on February 11, 2008

I'm going to give the perspective of a random reader (I love reading or listening to interviews). To be honest, I mainly read and listen to interviews of scientists so I am not sure if this is really applicable (as in, if it can e applied to actors, etc).

-A broad question that gives the big picture (e.g., if it is a new science study, can it be explained in a way that everyone can understand or why is it relevant to the average person?) -usually the first question

-If it is a new finding, how does it change how this person practices X or the model of Y

- Is there anything that I forgot to ask or that you would like to add? (last question) - as a reader, sometimes the person being interviewed brings up the most interesting points here.

Good luck!
posted by Wolfster at 5:44 PM on February 11, 2008

Great advice.

Two points that have been useful:

- "Important" people have a secretary or a personal assistant: they are your best friend. Treat them with respect, humor and warmth, remember their first name and use it. When I first asked for an interview, I always mentioned that the interviewee should agree that her/his secretary should handle all requests for background material (bio, press, CV, company history, pictures, etc.). The cooperation of personal assistants has been invaluable for me several times, especially when follow-ups were needed.

- Yes, do your homework. But during the interview, don't try to be smart: if there is something that you don't fully understand, don't nod as if you did. If you don't get it, there are chances that your reader won't either. So never hesitate to say that you don't understand something and to ask for a clearer or simpler explanation. Specialists of all kind are always happy to oblige. The role of a journalist is not to be as bright as the interviewee but to be alert to whatever your reader may not understand.
posted by bru at 6:05 PM on February 11, 2008

Can you do more interviews over the phone rather than e-mail? I find phone interviews to be so much better - the conversation flows better and you can ask immediate follow-up questions. What is also nice is that you can pick up stuff you didn't even know was interesting or that you wanted, just by letting the other person talk.

Calling people up cold can be difficult, but it gets easier the more you do it. Also, I like to set up interviews via e-mail and then talk to people on the phone (or even better, in person).

For the non-email interviews: LISTEN. When the interviewee is talking, a poor interviewer's mind is racing to come up with the next question. Resist this. Focus on what they're saying.

Totally agree with that. Trick I learned from a colleague - don't rush to fill in the space between their answer and your next question. Let the interviewee do that. It is really awkward when you first start, but once you get the hang of it, it's great. I've had people tell me all sorts of things I wasn't expecting to hear after I started applying that trick.

Interviewing is definitely one of those skills that you just get better at by doing. I've been a reporter for about 9 months and let me tell you, my interviews and my articles are so much better now than they were back in June. I feel much more confident and through mistakes and slip-ups, I've learned what makes a good interview and what doesn't. But I am constantly learning, too. I used to be terrible at calling up the police chief to report on a crime - my mind would jam because I was nervous and I would forget to ask really essential things like the street where the crime happened. And then I'd have to call the chief back, which makes me look silly. But now I have a sense of what should go into a crime type of story and I know what questions to ask the chief because I have done it often enough. So really, the more you do it the better you get. Good luck!
posted by sutel at 6:05 PM on February 11, 2008

From the perspective of an interviewee, I can tell you that being even vaguely familiar with the body of work of person you're interviewing, or even just having a basic acquaintance with the new/noteworthy work in particular, will give you a leg up on most interviewers. (Seriously, I can't tell you how many times over the past 3 months I have been asked some variant of, "So, tell me, why did you write [name of book that rhymes with The Schmangerous Schmook for Schmoys]?")

But mostly I would advise you to not sweat it: chances are most of the people you are interviewing are folks who have been interviewed before, and, especially if they have been doing a lot of press, they've probably been asked a variant of every possible question that could be asked. So they will have stock answers ready to go and won't be insulted or anything if some of your questions are "re-runs." Having said that, a thoughtful question that's something more than, "So, tell me, why did you write X?" will go a long way towards making your email or phone interview more enjoyable for the interviewee, and will likely contribute to a more interesting/enjoyable interview overall.

Also, it might seem obvious to point out, but be confident and interested in the person's answers. You can really get people to open up just by being a good listener and an engaging question-asker. Before the book came out, my co-author and I were given a crash course in how to basically not sound like an idiot on national TV, and what it essentially amounted to was learning how to NOT answer a reporter/interviewer's question but instead to stick to our talking points and turn every question around to our advantage. This was useful for something like doing a 5-minute Today Show appearance or a five-hour long satellite radio tour, and it's been useful for the random phone interview that still crops up -- I have my things that I say in response to certain questions, and I don't have to babble too much to get to the point. HOWEVER, I've definitely been charmed and disarmed by reporters who come across as being super into the book and my work and etc. etc. -- I totally fall for the "I'm your instant best friend and I love your work!" almost every time when it seems genuine. It makes me more likely to stray from my prepared points and delve more deeply into the meatier discussion. So don't discount sheer enthusiasm and earnestness and genuine interest -- I think those are some of the biggest, freshest things you can bring to an interview.

(P.S. I thought you did great so far!)
posted by mothershock at 6:15 PM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I happened to remember seeing this recent article on LifeHacker and figured you might want to glance at it:
Interview Tips
posted by forthright at 6:26 PM on February 11, 2008

I believe that we can learn a lot about people by listening to the stories that they have to tell. For example, if you are looking for someone with leadership ability, you might ask them to give you an example of a time that they exercised good leadership. Other questions that invite stories might be: (groupwork) What is a project that you worked on with others where you were proud of your work within the group? (service)Can you think of a time that you were especially someone at your job, to your last boss, to your clients, etc...depending on the case. (individual work) What is the work assignment that you were most proud of?

You get the idea. Ask the right story prompt and then let them tell you a story. You will be surprised at what you learn. Also, stories are usually not practiced. They are extemporaneous because they can't be answered with typical cookie cutter answers. Happy hunting.
posted by boots77 at 7:08 PM on February 11, 2008

An interview is a narrative: it should progress naturally from a beginning to an end. You should think about what story you want to tell before thinking of the questions. Otherwise, you'll get a collection of questions and answers, but that's not an interview. Find an arc. The most basic is something like this (this is the stock interview):

- new movie/album/book: the relation between the interviewee and his product
this is seldom very interesting, because you're probably asking questions for the zillionth time. Don't dwell on this too long, unless you and your interview are both geeks. If he is an interesting geek, and you too, this can be a very fun read, however - think Tarantino. A bit of geekiness works well in interviews: obsession is interesting, because most people lack it.

- movie/music/book business: hot topics in the biz/world at large and the interviewees views and feelings on said topics.
this is also not always very interesting, but you can hardly interview JJ Abrams and not talk about the writer's strike, right? Still, these subjects are probably important to your interviewee.

- the interviewee in his world: his past, present and future: what do things mean to your interviewee?
what is the purpose of his/her life? what values does he/she hold dear? how does it translate into his/her work and life choices? this part is, I think, why people read interviews. Why does X do what he does, the way he does it? Who is X? These are the questions you should think long and hard about. Compare your interviewees career to other, similar careers. Get a quote about screen writing from Robert McKee for JJ Abrams to comment on (make sure your readers know who everybody is...: don't underestimate them, but don't overestimate them either). Put up hypothesis about your interviewee for him to shoot down or acknowledge (but don't be a presumptious ass).

- a resounding, emotional end (or a decent joke)
you can work towards an ending - it comes with experience - but you can also look through the material to find it, and move a quote or a question to the end. Make sure it feels like an ending.

You can use this for a five minute interview or a three day interview. The only difference is the depth of your research and your interviewees willlingness to talk to you.

If you don't know how to structure things, chronology is always a good arc, if only because people are used to it.
posted by NekulturnY at 3:22 AM on February 12, 2008

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