The Art of Interviewing

My very first article that I ever sold was to Bust magazine about young women who wanted to become nuns. I set up my very first interview, wrote up questions, and when I called, I was so nervous that I was all over the place in my questions. When I turned the article in, my editor told me nicely that I needed to interview my sources again because I didn’t have enough material to make the article pop.

It was a huge lesson learned. My first few interviews were not so great. It really takes time to feel comfortable talking to someone you don’t really know, but need to get great information from them. It’s like a first date where you ask them in the first few minutes, “What is your most embarrassing moment?”

Here are my tips for scoring a great interview. I still get nervous but I let myself have fun and enjoy getting to know someone new.

  1. Research your interview subject. Read their blog, recent press about them, find something interesting you want to ask them. Your interviewee will be way more impressed that you spent time getting to know them beyond just a simple press release. I always find that it helps to find something about your subject that you connect with and use that as an opener. For example, I read on Nigel Barker’s blog that as a young kid he participated in marches protesting seal hunts. As a kid, I read books about harp seals because I loved them but I had no idea that as an adult, the seal hunt was still continuing. I used this as my interview open with Nigel and he just lit up and loved talking about how he got involved as a child and now as a spokesperson.
  2. Get your interviewing tools together. Figure out the best way to take notes during your interview. I bought a great recording device called iTalk for my iPod (it works for iPhones) and it turns all my interviews into MP3s that I can download into iTunes and transcribe my interviews easily. UPDATE: The iTalk is now just an app for iPhone users and the iTalk for the iPod is discontinued. I just bought a Sony Digital Voice Recorder with 1GB Flash Memory that is designed for Macs. I also bought a simple pair of headphones that I can plug into the iTalk and the earpiece goes into my ear while I’m talking on the phone.  The headphones I use and strongly recommend is the Olympus TP-7 Telephone Recording Device. You just slip one earpiece into your ear and the other end goes into the mic of your digital recorder and it records your phone conversations. I always test my equipment and have a backup plan of just typing notes into a Word document while talking.
  3. Be prepared. Anything can happen while you’re interviewing. Your subject has an emergency and has to re-schedule. Or your interview subject is just not giving you good material.  You can call your interview subject and they are not there.  Like a really good stage manager at a Broadway play, you’ve got to be prepared for the unexpected.
  4. Stick to your notes but ad-lib. Your interviewee says something interesting but it’s not part of your questions?  Go with the flow. Some of the best information I’ve gotten is from the subject volunteering something I had no idea about.
  5. Show up like it’s an important job interview. Yes, I may be interviewing my subject in the comfort of my own home with no shoes on, but I always call exactly on the dot, tell them how much time I’m going to spend with them (they are busy people), and I always tell them when their interview will be out and that I might get in touch with them with follow-up questions.  Treat your subject like the professional that they are and they will feel comfortable talking to you.

4 Comments on “The Art of Interviewing

  1. Great tips! I especially agree with you about treating it like a very important job interview. Calling or showing up on time is very underrated. When you’re late, it makes the interviewee feel like you don’t really care about what she has to say or like she’s not an important part of your story. Also, I have one tip I’d like to add. At the end of every interview I do, I always ask, “Is there anything you’d like to add that you don’t think I asked or think might be important.” Grammar Girl (http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-interviewing.aspx) had a great podcast on this subject a few years ago. That one question at the end of the interview changed my stories completely. I usually get the best/most interesting information with that one question.

    • Thanks for reading Shauna! Looks like the recorder is now only available for iPhones but you can buy used versions of the iTalk that I have on Amazon.

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