by Sarah Hamaker, reluctant marketer
Interviewing sources for articles doesn’t have to be a scary proposition. Most writers are curious people by nature—after all, many plots and plot points come about because a writer asked, “What if…?”
While interviewing someone for an article can seem daunting, there are ways to make it easy for the interviewer and interviewee. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people on numerous subjects, from well-known people to family and friends. Here are my tips on how to conduct interviews.
The preparation. The key to a good interview is to do your homework. Research your subject online and read the materials sent by the press person. Know who you’re talking with and why you’re asking this person your questions. If you’re not prepared, the interview won’t go well at all. Trust me on this!
The questions. When you’re first starting out with interviewing, write more questions than you think you’ll need answered. Once you’ve been doing it for a while, you’ll have a better sense as to how much material you’ll need and can shorten up your questions. I’ve found writing in categories can be helpful, such as thinking of your article’s potential subheads and compiling questions under each one. Avoid questions that can be answered yes/no. Focus instead on open-ended questions instead.
The format. By necessity, most of your interviews will likely take place on the phone. In person interviews are nice, but will probably not be something you’ll do on a regular basis because of time and proximity to your interviewees. For phone interviews, you’ll want to ask the interviewee to block out a certain amount of time. My rule of thumb is to add 10 minutes to how long I think the interview will last, based on questions and content to be covered.
Lately, I’ve noticed that more sources would prefer to answer questions by email. Some journalists abhor this method, and if you’re writing on sensitive topics or ones in which follow up questions are the norm, then email is probably not the right format. If you’re seeking information, and it’s straightforward piece, then emailed answers should be just fine.
The equipment. If you do a lot of phone interviews, I recommend investing in a headset—your shoulder and neck will thank you! You’ll need to decide if you will record your conversations or simply write or type in the replies. You can buy digital recorders that hook up to the phone or find an app to record conversations on your cell phone. However, you do need to let the interviewee know that you are recording the conversation and what you’ll do with the recording (i.e., use to it for accuracy for the article).
The interview. During the interview, you’ll want to be able to ask follow up questions and to go off “script” if the answers dictate. In other words, don’t become overly wedded to your questions that you miss an opportunity for some smashing quotes. I always end my interviews by asking if there’s anything else the source would like to add, anything that I’ve missed or that he thinks is important. Sometimes, that gives me the best answers of the entire interview.
The end. As you close the interview, remind your source what will happen next. If you know the publication date, mention that, adding that you’ll send a link to the article or a hard copy of the magazine, etc. If you or the publication does fact-checking, say that as well. Finally, ask how the source would like you to contact her if you have any follow-up questions or clarifications.
The follow up. After the piece is published, I generally send links to my sources and thank them again for their help. It’s always good manners to ensure you keep a good relationship with those you’ve interviewed because you never know when you might need their assistance again.
Next month, we’ll discuss how to become an expert.