Great stories are built on great interviews, and great interviews are built on great questions.
Great questions and great interviews don’t just happen. Getting people to talk about themselves, their businesses, experiences or passions takes research, planning and finesse.
Over the years, I’ve cultivated a number of interview strategies, and I recently shared a few of them with fellow freelancer and writing blogger Susan Johnston for her post on the subject, which you can read here.
Susan’s questions made me sit down and think about all of the different ways I prepare for interviews, and how I get people to talk.
Here are some of my other secrets for getting sources to open up about almost anything:
1. Do your homework. Before an interview that’s pivotal to a story, I’ll do as much background research and reporting as possible so I go in armed and ready. I feel a lot more comfortable in potentially confrontational situations when I know I have back up for any hard questions I might be asking. I usually save these kinds of interviews for the absolute end of my reporting process.
2. Prep your interview subject (up to a point). I interview a lot of busy executives, including CEOs, so I often send a bullet list of subjects I want to cover ahead of time. The source or their public relations representative can use it to know what to prep for – which is good for me so I don’t have to sit through 15 minutes of hearing their company spiel before getting to the stuff I want to know about. However, sending them a list of questions doesn’t mean I don’t ask anything else – I always do – not that I tell them that.
3. Forget transcription services. I’ve never understood why freelancers use transcription services. I’d rather take my own notes, thank you very much. I do a lot of phone interviews and I write a lot on deadline, so I type notes while I’m interviewing someone. I’m fast – I credit years of piano lessons for that – and don’t worry if things aren’t spelled right. If I need to, I’ll go over my notes after an interview and clean them up. When I do in-person interviews I always take hand-written notes – never trust an interview solely to a recording device – and depending on the situation I may or may not using a recorder.
4. Make your subject feel comfortable. Before an interview I’ll engage in a bit of small talk that I base on something the source and I might in common – living in the same city, having kids the same age, having attended the same conferences at some point. That’s not appropriate in every situation, but in some cases it helps to make them more comfortable with me and maybe even forget that they’re talking to a reporter so they’ll open up a little more. If I’ve interviewed someone before, I’ll mention it; if their company or organization’s been in the news I’ll mention it. If their city’s sports team just was in the news I’ll mention it. Whatever it takes – I’m not shy.
5. Ask the hard questions. This is the most important point of all. Think about what your readers or editor – or mother – would want to know, and ask that question. Why go to all of the trouble to arrange to talk to this person and then not ask the questions that people are dying to know the answers to, even if they’re really, really difficult to ask. I’ve asked an Orange County, Calif., couple that spent one Thanksgiving in the hospital praying over their gravely ill only child what they were thankful for that holiday. I’ve asked boiler room operators how they could take millions of dollars from retirees. I’ve asked Suzy Welch if writing a book was her declaration of independence from her more-famous husband and former GE chairman Jack. You gotta ask the hard questions.
Here are other posts I’ve done on interviews and interviewing techniques: