To be a good writer, you must be a good interviewer. Not only to help you better understand unfamiliar subjects – but because people are interesting, and stories are boring without them.
However, a good interview doesn’t happen by accident. Yes, it’s about choosing the ideal person to speak with (and having them agree to speak with you), but it’s also about preparation. This 6-step guide will help you get ready to run the perfect interview.
1. Pick your talent
The story you write will be shaped by the people you speak with. So depending on what you’re writing, or who you’re writing for, consider this:
What’s in it for them?
We’re all busy. So most people won’t agree to be interviewed unless they benefit in some way. This could be raising their personal profile, advertising their business – or just a genuine passion for whatever topic you’re discussing. But remember: while a promise to mention their business can be a great motivator for an interview, it can also damage your journalistic credibility.
Do they have a personal bias?
Often, people will only give you one side of the story. If you’re looking to write something unbiased and factual, it’s best to interview a few different people to make sure you’re presenting multiple perspectives.
Are they the right person?
Seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people get this wrong. For example, if you were writing a news piece on declining art sales – is a gallery owner the best person to interview? Or perhaps an artist, or an economist? Or all three? I’ll let you decide.
2. Choose your method
Whether you’re conducting your interview in person, over the phone or even by email, make sure you’re making the most of your time (and theirs). This really depends on what you’re hoping to get out of the interview.
Conducting an interview face-to-face is by far the best way to build rapport and get some fantastic responses from your subject. But of course, there’s more logistics involved – so you need to be certain it’s worth the travel time. And remember, the place you choose to meet will have an impact on their emotional state. So if you can, meet them at their home or office – somewhere they feel comfortable, rather than a busy café or sterile meeting room.
Over the phone
Need a quick quote, pressed for time, or a face-to-face interview no possible? Phone interviews are the next best thing. But your interviewees responses are unlikely to be as nuanced and you may have to work harder to build trust. Also, be ready to record or transcribe the call. And don’t forget: in Australia it’s illegal to record phone calls without consent. So be sure to ask permission at the beginning of your interview.
It’s rare to get a great interview over email – but if you just need a few key details to add context or background to a story it’s a good time-saver. Take the time to craft some clear, simple questions that can’t be misinterpreted – and set their expectations for what you need in response, and when you need it by.
3. Do your research
Before you write your questions, find as much information as you can about the person you’re talking to, and what you’re talking about. Not only will you write better questions and get better context for your story – you’ll feel more confident and prepared during your interview. Find some research tips here.
4. Prepare your questions
The secret to nailing the perfect interview? Ask the right questions. Getting this right is harder than you might think and takes practise, but if you need some direction, here are some quick tips:
- If the answer can be found online – don’t ask.
- Ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
- If your interviewee strays off topic during the interview, gently redirect them back to the point.
- Treat it like a casual conversation and don’t feel like you have to stick to the ordering of the questions you’ve written.
- Write questions with a narrative in mind, this will make the story-writing process much easier.
- Send them the questions in advance to help them prepare (when appropriate).
5. Check your equipment
I can’t emphasise this point enough. If your equipment fails, all the hard work you’ve put into your interview will be for nothing. If you’re planning to record your interview (whether in person or by phone) test your recording equipment before the day, on the day (accounting for any background noise) – and bring a back-up!
6. Practise good interview etiquette
It’s your interview, so make sure to steer the ship. Help them along the way, and be patient and kind. Remember, the more open and friendly you are, the more at ease they’ll be – and the better responses you’ll get. Make sure you:
- show up on time – being late or unprepared may frustrate your interviewee before the interview begins
- respect their wishes – if they’ve told you they don’t want to talk about something, or asked you not to run a quote it’s non-negotiable
- ask for consent to record – it’s illegal in Australia to secretly record a conversation
- allow them to approve their quotes – this isn’t mandatory, but most interviewees will be far more willing to speak if you give them this opportunity
- send them the final product – depending on the type of story you’re writing, the interviewee will usually like to see the final product in its published format
- show appreciation – let them know how helpful they’ve been and that you’re grateful for their time. You never know when you might need to speak with them again.