As a writer and social researcher, I interview people all the time. But no matter what industry you’re in, the art of asking a good question is a handy skill.
The most interesting writing today gives you direct insight into why people act the way they do. It expresses their thoughts and feelings in their own words. But how do we get these rich, colourful perspectives? All we have to do is ask.
Keep questions simple
Don’t bundle two or three questions into one. If you throw six tennis balls at someone, they’ll drop them all. If you throw one, they might just catch it. Split your questions up, and your subject can address each point. You can always ask follow-up questions if you think there’s more to uncover. All questions should also be asked with simple language – trying to be fancy will probably just confuse them.
Don’t be afraid to pivot
Part of the beauty of an interview is that there’s room for surprise. A willingness to be agile will uncover the best insights. But do your research. If you ask obvious questions, your subject might become frustrated. If you understand the field, you can engage in a meaningful, free-form conversation that takes you into unexpected territory.
At the same time, be wary of the interview straying too far from what you’re interested in. Allowing for emergence without getting blown off course is a constant balancing act.
Know how to cut through the spin
As anyone who interviews politicians will know, subjects can answer a different question to the one you asked. Sometimes, they might have misunderstood. Maybe the substance of your question isn’t important to them. But maybe they’re avoiding something, and that is interesting in and of itself.
It also pays to be respectful. Know when to move on, and when to press the issue. This will depend on who you’re speaking to and the type of interview you’re conducting.
Interviews are about human stories. Encourage them to ramble.
It’s always easier to start with more and edit later. This is particularly true with interviews, where there’s nothing worse than a string of one-sentence answers. You need to ask open-ended questions and encourage their storytelling because best quotes come out when subjects are on a roll.
Be willing to sit in a few seconds of silence. Waiting in silence can provoke a subject to move beyond their pre-planned script, and it signals that it’s okay to think about an answer before speaking. Also try paraphrasing their response back to them. It will make sure you’re on the same page, and might encourage a more succinct soundbite.
This seems obvious, but be curious
Interviews are a licence to be nosey, so embrace the playful detective within and keep asking ‘why?’.
People actually love to be listened to, so encourage them with your body language. The more genuinely excited you are, the more comfortable they’ll feel. And the energy you give off will be reflected back, so if you want an engaged subject, you need to be invested yourself.
Some notes on notetaking
You can scribble notes while they’re speaking, but don’t be distracted. Your focus should be on them. You should also record the conversation, with their permission of course. There are apps that can record and transcribe the interview for you. At Writers, we use one called Otter, which uses AI and voice recognition to transcribe and timestamp the conversation.
Take five minutes after the interview to write down how it felt and make some general observations. Did they seem uncomfortable speaking about certain things? Was there something that surprised you? Your emotional response to the interview can come in handy later, and you should write it down before you forget.
When you’ve been taught the right skills, and with a bit of practice, conducting an interview is a lot of fun and can unearth profound insights – no matter what industry you’re in.