The Art of Interviewing

If you can chat over lunch, you can master an interview for writing a great personal story.

In the past few years, I’ve had some interesting interviews. I talked to a lady who, heartrendingly, broke down into tears while describing the very first time she saw the campus where I work. I also got a detailed personal tour of an insanely extensive, yet somehow charming, collection of duck decoys. Another time, I only got ten minutes to talk with a very generous donor while at the same time orchestrating having his picture taken with our basketball coach.

Whether you get ten minutes on a basketball court, the whole afternoon at the subject’s home, time via Skype or just over the phone, you can use the same process to write a story with impact.

I believe it boils down to about seven steps.

1) Before you do anything, define the purpose so you fully understand it. You should be able to state your purpose in one sentence. It will drive your research, interview and, eventually, the writing and editing.

2) Background research. Learn about your subject including defining potential themes that will allow you to riff on the spot once you are in the interview.

3) Request the interview.

  • Identify yourself confidently and without apology.
  • Share your purpose and what you will do with their story.
  • Establish a slightly flexible time limit, i.e. “I don’t expect this will take more than X minutes of your time.”
  • While you are talking, try to get a small sense for how the person might be. Will they be chatty? Are they mainly flattered or suspicious? Stoic or comfortable?

4) Prepare questions. Some writers resist this in order to “let the source lead the interview.” Personally, I don’t believe that having some prepared questions means you have to doggedly stick to a predetermined structure. You are always free to deviate.

  • As a good rule of thumb, aim for about one question for every three minutes you’ll have.
  • Make sure your questions are designed to draw them out and make them human. Don’t ask “what are your strengths?’ say “what would your colleagues (or rivals or family or friends or someone meeting you for the very first time) say are your strengths?”
  • Be ready to follow-up with questions that will get you the personal elements. Take me back to that day, what were you doing before ABC happened? Where were you living? What was your first thought when you realized XYZ?

5) Build rapport.

  • Smile, smile, smile! They’ll feel it even if it’s a phone interview.
  • Keep positive and patient no matter what; even if all you’ve heard so far is unusable platitudes.
  • The main thing is to keep things non-judgmental and don’t rush in to fill the void the second your source stops talking.
  • If your source rambles, gently steer them back on course. If need be, say, “I have a few more questions I need to ask and I want to respect your time.”
  • Keep at it to get a few hooks. Instead of “can you tell me something funny that happened?” ask “did anyone ever do XWZ?” If you’ve build a little rapport, most likely they will counter with “No, but…”

6) The bomb. If there is anything potentially embarrassing, awkward or tough put this near the end—after you’ve built rapport. Allow time for recovery to end things on a positive note.

7) Conclude. This can either be when you’ve gotten enough material or when you sense your source is tiring of you. I have a standard final question that goes something like this: “Is there anything important that we haven’t talked about?” End with a thank you.

And what is said in the interview is never enough. A great interview also includes description, context, a fresh way of saying something and nonverbal information about the subject.

That’s my process. I hope you can find something useful here for your next interview.

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