Perhaps because I am nosey by nature, one of my favorite elements of writing is the interviewing process. I have no formal training in this arena, but my natural curiosity and talkativeness has helped me out, as have my roles as English teacher, yearbook advisor, freelance writer, blogger, newsroom receptionist, and college-level writing instructor. For the last year in my role as a contributor for The Village News, I have conducted interviews on a regular basis–and love it. If you’re about to embark on an interview, here are four tried-and-true tips for you.
1. Be Prepared
Come with a few questions prepared and an angle in mind, but also be prepared for the story to reveal itself as the interview unfolds. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions that weren’t part of your original plan, or abandon some questions altogether. I typically end up asking all the questions I came with–and then some. In some rare instances, I didn’t prepare questions at all. Instead, I was prepared to let the conversation unfold completely organically. Usually, I find the theme of the story reveals itself as I interview my subject. By the end of my interviews with several students in and a sensei of a special needs karate class, I knew my theme would be smiling despite trials and tribulations, but I did not start the interview with this message in mind. See what threads you notice, and follow them.
2. Get the Basics
Sometimes, I get so lost in the stories my subjects are telling me, I forget to note down the fundamental facts of those stories. Make sure you get the basics–dates, job titles, full names, ages, spellings, locations–whatever might be relevant to the subject matter. I’ve learned to do this up front. I begin by asking as many basic, formulaic questions as I can think of, and when my subject tells me about something that happened, I have learned to immediately follow up with whatever who, what, when, where, why, or how I might need when I sit down later to write the story.
3. Respect the Silence
Sometimes, you’re going to ask a question that your subject isn’t going to answer right away. It may feel awkward, but if someone is silent for a long time after you ask a question, respect the silence. Let them be silent. Sit in it. Let them think. It may be you’ve dredged up an emotionally charged memory and your subject needs a moment to compose himself before he can answer. It may be you’ve asked a question that requires your subject to delve deep into the recesses of memory, retracing facts and dates, before she can respond adequately. Wait. Be patient. The silence will yield to conversation again in due time, and the answer you get after a prolonged silence is likely to be a better one than an answer you prodded for.
4. Be Clear
Always be clear with your subjects about what is on the record and off the record. If a subject says something that you’re not sure they want published, ask. If you want to ask a question you know isn’t relevant to your story, let your subject know you’re asking “off the record.” If a subject precedes a statement with “not for the story” or “don’t print this,” don’t even take notes about it. This will help you avoid inadvertently including it, having forgotten your subject told you in confidence.
No matter how strong a writer you are, to write journalistically, you must also be a strong interviewer. In fact, over the course of the last year writing for my local paper, I’ve learned that if I conduct a good interview, the person I’m talking to essentially writes the story for me. I just have to put it all in the right order to convey the theme I need to communicate.