Imagine this: You’re a young writer, just starting out in the world of freelancing and magazine pitches. You just got hired to write a profile about a lady who does charity, owns her own business, and mothers two children. You know this lady is someone special and worth reading about, but now it’s up to you to convey that in words.
First, you’ll need a great interview. If you don’t get enough juicy details and quotes about her life and experiences, it doesn’t matter how great of a writer you are.
Most people underestimate the skills it takes to interview somebody. If you’re still doubtful, try asking yourself, “What was your most life-changing experience?” It’s really hard to think on the fly and answer a big-picture question like that, especially if there’s no lead-in. Here are a few tips to help warm up a source and make the most out of your interview!
◊Always record your interviews (but always tell them you’re recording*). In my first few interviews, I thought it would be best to take notes on the most important tidbits and try to scribble down quotes. I discovered this method is unreliable and unnatural. First, it’s really hard to capture a person’s soul when you’re paraphrasing what they say. Your mind will automatically edit their sentence structure and word choice to make it easier for you to write what they’re saying, and you have the possibility of human error hanging over your head. There aren’t a lot of wrong ways to write an article, but misquoting a source is just about the worst thing you can do. Second, it makes a person feel even more awkward when you’re scribbling down everything they say, and they are bound to be curious about what you’re writing. This makes them less candid and more reserved. Third, you can’t hold up a conversation if you’re busy recording what they just said. I found myself smiling and nodding my way through those first few interviews, and it didn’t feel right. I felt like there were unexplored leads that fizzled out because I didn’t jump on the opportunity to talk about them further. This leads me to my next tip…
◊Don’t follow a strict script. It’s important that you do your research and come prepared so you don’t have to ask the dumb questions like the name of their college or their store. But sometimes they’ll say something that leaves an open thread hanging. For example: “No, I don’t have any connections to the deaf community, but I’ve worn glasses since I was 16 months old.” This is a perfect opportunity to ask a follow-up question that prompts them to talk more about this subject. It’s hard to recognize in yourself what topics are interesting, so as an interviewer, this is your job. Next, you would say something like this: “How did your parents discover you needed glasses at such a young age?” You probably aren’t interviewing this person about glasses, but it’s important to get a knowledge of their background and significant experiences. These are the things that make them a unique individual, so if you’re going to portray their personality, you have to access this type of information though it may seem unimportant at the time. You probably have an angle in mind when you go into the interview, but it may turn out completely differently from how you planned it.
For example, I recently interviewed a lady who did a charity knitting project, but she had been interviewed so many times about it that she didn’t really have much to say about the project. Instead, not wanting to force the issue, we chatted about how she runs her store, her favorite types of yarn, and how she interacts with her customers. These things are important to her, and by letting her steer the conversation, I got to hear about what she really cares about.
◊Don’t be afraid to talk about yourself. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about how people will clam up if they feel too awkward. If you sense they’re having a hard time opening up, try sharing something relevant about yourself. This reminds the source that yes, you are also a human being with experiences, and it takes some of the pressure off them. It gives them a chance to catch their breath and gather their thoughts. It makes them feel like they’re getting to know you in exchange for talking about themselves, which is important especially if it’s a difficult subject. Natural conversations are a balance of give and take, not just one-sided. Maintaining this balance will help them feel relaxed and speak fluidly with their own voice.
◊Start with the easy questions. People (usually) feel awkward when asked to talk about themselves, and it’s hard to determine what’s interesting about your own life. Start with simple questions that are relatively easy to answer and not controversial. If you do have an angle that you want to steer them towards, do not start there. If you’re struggling with where to begin, it can sometimes be helpful to let them know how you want your article to turn out or what parts of their life you want to highlight, and sometimes that gets them talking immediately. Others you might have to warm up with questions like “Why did you decide to come to this school?” even though you’re definitely not going to use that information in your article.
◊Let them talk about what they want to. I always end interviews with the question “Is there anything else you think I should know?” Sometimes, this leads to a slew of information that I wouldn’t know to ask about otherwise. For example, in an interview with a student artist, I discovered at the end that she would be selling art at a street show the next weekend and she’d never done that before. This led me to questions about how much time she spends making art, which really helped my article because it illustrated how devoted she is to being a successful artist. I hadn’t thought to ask a statistical question like that on my own, but she led me right to it.
◊Take notes on the little things. Even if you’re recording an interview, have a notebook out. When you have the opportunity to do so, write down notes on what your surroundings look like or certain mannerisms of your source. This will be really helpful when you’re back at your desk, trying to remember exactly what shade of blue her scarf was or what that tattoo looked like. Physical descriptions and small details like what the coffee shop looks like will allow your readers to feel like they’re sitting right there with you during the interview. Taking pictures is helpful too, and it also makes you look more professional even if your assignment doesn’t call for pictures (the source won’t know that!). They might act embarrassed and hesitant at first, but it will solidify the fact that someone cares about what they’re doing. Usually this makes them feel important, but if they’re actually unwilling, of course don’t take their picture.
◊Relax! Your source will be able to tell if you’re tense. If you’re relaxed, there’s a better chance they will relax, too. Practice open body postures and try to maintain good eye contact. Chances are, no matter how awkward you feel, your source feels worse. Humans are wired to feel awkward, but if you pretend like you’re comfortable, you might actually have fun.
*In most states, you’re required to tell someone that they’re being recorded. It’s always a good practice of etiquette and trust-building and keeps you out of legal trouble.
I’d love to hear some of your interviewing tips and experiences!