5 Tips on Interviewing People Without Blowing It

Jan 172012
 

This guy is ready to interview. He's got his headset on so his hands are free to type. He's dressed up because the interviewee can see him on a Skype video chat.

Let’s say you want to interview a chef, restaurateur, farmer or author for a Question & Answer piece. Let’s say that person is famous and you don’t want to blow it.

You won’t if you follow a few rules:

1. Don’t waste the person’s time. Recently someone asked me to put aside an hour for an interview. I thought an hour was way too long, but I didn’t say anything.

I got what I deserved.

He spent the first half hour figuring out what to interview me about. I had to walk him through it, which irritated me, and that’s how we started the interview. Talk about starting on the wrong foot.

Most people who have an online presence have a website or articles written about them that you can find as easily as searching on their names. As you research, the content will lead you to write questions based on what would interest your readers most.

2. Do a ton of research. Sift through a mountain of information about the person, because that’s how you come up with the best questions. You can even review their posts on Facebook and Twitter and their bios on Linked In, if relevant.

3. Write questions that don’t lead to yes or no answers. Questions that start with “How did you feel about..” or “Tell me more about the time…” lead to great stories or quotes.

4. Set up a time to call or meet in person. State how long you’ll need and stick to it, then get ready. Yes, it’s easier to email a list of questions, but it’s not as good. People are busy and they might write one-sentence answers, or vague or uninteresting non-answers. Then you have to ask for longer answers, which annoys people. Plus, sometimes the best content comes when an interview goes in a whole other direction. There’s no room for that in an email.

I do most of my interviews by phone or Skype, in front of my computer. I use my Plantonics headset so my hands are free to type. If I’m meeting someone, I sometimes use a tape recorder for backup if I’m taking notes by hand. I make sure I ask the most important questions before time time is up.

5. During the interview, pay attention to your interviewee. Make sure your interviewee’s not bored or giving you unsatisfying answers. Don’t be afraid to switch questions, repeat a question (phrased slightly differently), omit a question to pick up the pace, or follow a new path to see where it leads.

6. Bonus Tip: Review the answers right after the interview, then shape the story. It’s best to go over the interview immediately see how many sentences you’ve typed that make no sense (believe me, it still happens). Try to recall them exactly or delete. Don’t rewrite them, ever. Ever. Cut out duplication, obvious answers, and any answer you can capture in a link if the Q&A will run online. Don’t start your finished interview with basic questions.

There are lots of reasons to interview. Sometimes you want to answer a question. Sometimes you just want to get close to someone you admire. The key is to shape the interview so it’s about something specific, and to make it relevant to your readers. Once you think you’re done, if you can’t write a headline or sum up the interview in a sentence, you’re not there yet.

You might also like these Q&As:

Photo by Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

  44 Responses to “5 Tips on Interviewing People Without Blowing It”

  1. This is such a handy list, thanks so much! I have been thiinking for some time about adding a monthly Q&A to my blog, I want to interview bloggers I admire and see what makes them tick. It’s a pretty basic idea, but I’m not so sure how to go about it.
    Thanks for writing this, it’s really helpful.

  2. Some great tips here, thanks Dianne.
    I find it also helps to hunt down and read other interviews or Q’s & A’s of the subject, too. That way one can avoid asking oft repeated questions and perhaps follow up on an interesting direction that the previous interviews might have led to.
    I try to do plenty of homework so I don’t waste time or look like a fool when asking questions!

  3. Interviewing is an art. I believe that many of us have been so easily absorbed into the email/comment mode that we forget we are “talking” to real people. Interviewing,on the other hand, is a difficult skill, one to be cultivated. I am reminded of rudimentary journalism classes, perhaps an outdated teaching technique. Thanks for this post.

    • Well, that’s true, I have a background as a journalist and had to do plenty of interviewing for stories, although I hardly ever wrote Q&As. I do more of them now on the blog. You are most welcome, Liz.

  4. You actually have 6 tips, you have 5 written twice, so there’s a nice little bonus tip for us all thrown in :)

    Great tips and I have been on both sides of this, interviewer and interview-ee, and not wasting the person’s time is KEY. Both sides.

    Thanks for the links to Deb and Aran’s posts, too.

    • Doh! My husband is away and he is my proofreader. Thanks Averie. I made it a bonus tip, as you suggested.

      • Thanks, Dianne, for the help. We’re in Orlando working on our service dog project and will be conducting interviews for the next week. What a timely post!

        You made me feel better about my go to proofreaders (my husband, daughter, and daughter in law. I can proof anyone else’s work, but my own…..not so much. I think we need external forces because when we write something and try to proof it, we know what me meant to say but don’t read as an uninformed outsider.

        Love your work–all of it.

        • Thank you, Joanne. I wrote about husbands proofing work in this post, which got a great response.

          • I read your post about husband-proofing your work. (Is that like child-proofing?) I’m one of the lucky ones; my husband doesn’t read for grammar, but for content, He tells me when my language is too convoluted, and he’s my cheering squad. He’s been telling me to write a book since we were married 48 years ago.

            They typos I leave to my daughter (not the one who is my research partner–she’s a scientist but she can’t write) and my daughter in law.

            With all the policing, why do errors still get through? I guess it’s as inevitable as death and taxes.As my mother used to say, s–t happens.

          • You have 3 people who read each post? Amazing. You are so lucky!

            That is the exact scientific answer to why errors get through. Your mother nailed it.

  5. Great tips! I try to listen to a lot of Fresh Air–I think she does a great job asking interesting questions and creating a story line.

    I write a Q & A piece for my local Edible magazine, and what I find hardest is actually keeping the interviewee from talking too much, because I transcribe my stories word-for-word, and then I have way too much content. I think it’s because I ask engaging questions, but how do I ask a question that’s somewhere in the middle–I don’t want to elicit yes-no answers, but also don’t want a master’s thesis. Or–do you have tips for cutting them off without losing the punchline of their answer?

    • Oh that is a lot of work, Amber, to tape the interview and then transcribe it all — if I’m understanding you right. Maybe your questions need to be more specific, so they’re answering something particular vs. general. The good part about interviewing over the phone is that I stop typing when I’m not interested in the answer and they’re going on and on.

      I do interrupt people because I am impatient. By then I’ve decided there is no punchline, and I try to move on.

      • Yes, it’s a ton of work–(I should actually figure out how to do a podcast with the hours of audio I have). But I think you’ve nailed it–if I ask only one or two open questions, and make the rest specific, it would cut things down considerably. Very helpful. Thank you! :)

  6. Going beyond true Q&As – with direct quotes – I think your second #5, about reviewing your notes/memories immediately afterward, is great advice that applies equally to writing about a meal, or some other first-hand experience you want to bring home to your readers. I wrote this post about seeing Anthony Bourdain’s live show without having taken any notes during the event. But I jotted down everything I could remember as soon as I got home. And then I shaped the story. (That was a while back; I’m now more diligent about note-taking.) http://eggplanttogo.blogspot.com/2010/06/bourdain-live.html

    And tying in with your first #5, about paying attention to your interviewee, I think it’s helpful to allow yourself to be present and in the moment when talking to someone, especially face to face, and really “listening” to what they have to say. Sometimes your best follow-up questions are the ones you couldn’t plan. And responding with genuine interest may elicit stories you couldn’t have gotten any other way.

    I haven’t done any formal Q&As for my blog, but I tend to get nervous when talking to people I’m interested in writing about but haven’t met before, especially if they’re “famous.” Will keep these suggestions in mind to prep ahead and keep my calm, especially for something coming up in Feb.

    • My “first No. 5″ – you are so polite. Yes the bonus point (as it’s now called) is great for restaurant reviewing, where you can’t take notes until afterwards, so you need to write everything down while it’s fresh.

      You really didn’t take any notes for the Bourdain report? That’s incredible. You have an amazing talent for recall, that’s for sure.

      Re listening, yes, good idea. Otherwise you miss something and then you have to apologize and ask them to repeat it. Not cool.

  7. Great tips here as always Dianne and I love that there are two No. 5′s. It just shows ‘to err is human’ .

    What about ‘email interviews’ where you receive a list of questions and fill them out and send them back to the interviewer. Are they at liberty then to re-write your words?

  8. Hi, I just wanted to point out that 1 hour is certainly not too long for an interview if you are writing, say, a 2,000-word feature for a newspaper. Sometimes it’s even not enough, say, if you’re writing a full profile of the person. It may be way more than necessary for a 300-word blog post, but it all depends how the interview is being used.

    Also, my tip — having an interesting conversation with the person, regardless of whether this is based on the questions you prepared in advance, is the best way to produce an interesting interview.

    • Yes, that is true for a feature, rather than a Q&A. A full profile might require spending several hours with the person, visiting them at work, and interviewing friends and colleagues. It’s much more complicated.

      Re having an interesting conversation, yes, when both people are fully involved, it can be a beautiful thing!

  9. Thank you so much for this. So timely since I’m getting ready to do my first interview with a local olive oil purveyor.

  10. Yes, thank you, timely for me, too. How do you handle interviewing people you don’t know/have never met before, especially if you are a bit shy? Do you just prepare, prepare, prepare and take a deep breath? (Darn, I wish I’d taken a course in journalism!) What is your approach to get them to take the time to talk to you?

    • Find some kind of a connection so that when you contact them, you have something in common to begin with. If you speak to them in an intelligent way that shows you have knowledge of their work, they’ll want to cooperate. And that’s because yes, you have prepared, prepared, prepared — and taken a deep breath. Well said.

  11. Dianne, I can’t believe you left out the most important thing: asking the subject if you can follow up for clarification via e-mail later? Otherwise, how do you get clear up any confusion you have, or get elaboration on something you realize is important when you go over your notes? I think YOU taught me that one 20 years ago!

    • Oh Howard, you are so smart. Yes, absolutely. Follow-up is great by email. It’s just not so good for interviewing in the first place.

  12. I had always wanted to be a writer for Vanity Fair, doing their celebrity interviews. In the 1990s I landed a freelance job interviewing the top pastry chefs in the US of the list of the Top 10 Pastry Chefs for that year. It was like a dream job. I had a fabulous editor, Tim Moriarty, of now defunct Pastry Arts and Design (now at the Wine Enthusiast). I was given leeway to do the interview in my own style, and the final story, with photographs, was often 8 full pages. I got to interview the chef and outline his personality, describe his dessert creations, and then give a description of the kitchen and equipment he used. It was one of my best writing jobs in my life. These chefs are artists as well as restaurant people. I did it for a number of years. Many of the chefs became personal friends, such as Stephen Durfee, then at French Laundry, and Pat Coston of Picasso Restaurant in the Belagio, Las Vegas. Every interview was completely different. On the other end I give about one interview a month on radio. Again each interview, some live, some taped, some with spontaneous call in questions, is completely unique due to the interviewee. One can never tell which direction a session will go in. Some interviewers just amaze me how much prep they do and how interested they are in the subject, which can be a countertop appliance like the slow cooker or bread machine, or baking in general. I highly recommend interviews for up and coming food professionals.

    • The voice of experience! Thanks Beth. That does sound like a dream job. I like that each interview was different. It would have been easy to fall into a format where you ask the same questions each time.

  13. Thank you Dianne for the relevant and timely tips. Again!

    I once received a great piece of advice about interviewing, which was to record the interview both as a verbatim record (handy if your typing is slow) but also as a tool for improving your interviewing skills.

    While I find it an excruciating experience to have to listen to myself played back (‘Oh no, did I really ask that question?’) I can generally find four or five ways to improve the next interview. It might be rephrasing questions more clearly, allowing a tangent to develop into an interesting side topic, or something as simple as not laughing loudly and masking the last bit of that fabulous quote from the interviewee!

    • Good one, Fiona. I also find it excruciating to listen to myself on audio, but it sounds like you have forged ahead and made the best of it by learning how to improve.

  14. whoops I forgot to add…after writing the article, before submitting to my editor, I would always send the article to the chef for his editorial review and comments. that way the chef could feel in control of the information going out about him and not be surprised later reading the magazine, as well as picking up any details I missed or were erroneous. I would have the time to rephrase or even omit something at the easiest point in the process. In this manner, you are a team producing a piece. I would never put out an article without the interviewee’s review of the material. Saves on possible grief and regret later. Often once an article is submitted, there is an inhouse fact checker who will go over the piece as well. If you are interviewing a food personality for your own blog, you get to be all the editorial levels yourself. It is of the utmost importance not to embarass or print negative information on your interviewee.

    • Here we differ. When I was a magazine editor we never showed the piece to the interviewee. It is fine to call back and check facts, but not to let the interviewee control the piece. It worked that way I was the editor of 2 city magazines, 2 international magazines, and when I was a newspaper editor.

  15. My best tip to add to your list (which I love!) is to be an actress/actor as an interviewer; that is, make your voice charming, seductive, INTERESTED. People respond a lot to tone and tend to open up when they think the interviewer is fascinated by them. And then they tend to become a bit fascinating even if they weren’t to begin with.

    I also like to warn folks up front that I may stop them for a minute or two here and there so my fingers can catch up with their speech. That way they won’t be offended. I’m a fast typist, but I’ve had to deal with some even faster talkers in my time!

    • Those are good points, Tinky. There’s nothing worse than being interviewed by someone who seems bored. I’ve been there.

      Re typing, yes, I’ve had to remind people when I’m quiet that I’m just typing, so they know I’m still on the phone.

  16. A great piece Dianne,
    I couldn’t help but think that the example #1 was about our interview, but looking back there were definitely things I could have done differently and your list provides a great insight.
    At that time I was still new to the process and working through the butterflies, but my mentor did preach the value of the 15-20 minute pre interview process for our longer form content style. I have got it down to about 10 minutes now which help our objective to publish content that helps people get their food venture going .

    That said, your comments are very useful and I will take them to heart. Certainly hope your time was not wasted, and look forward to chat again some time this year with a pre planned interview ;) Here’s is a link to our interview for those who would like to have a listen and as you can see I welcome all comments to improve. Here’s to your success! http://goo.gl/CLB3h

    • Lindsay, I left out certain things about that interview to make the tip more effective. I did not say that you were new to the process. Also you did a super job in the interview. You were interested, animated and asked good questions. Afterwards you had to deal with the technical problems of moving the video to a podcast due to the poor quality of our Skype call. You really had your hands full. So please don’t think that I thought you did not do a professional job, or that the interview was a waste of time. I just wanted to get on with the interview! I’m impatient. I think I said that as well.

      Ten minutes is not too long to talk to people about how you’re going to conduct the interview, what the focus should be, and what you’re looking for. I wouldn’t ask questions about what your interviewee does, however. You know who your viewers are and what they want, and you know why you chose your subject.

      Thanks for the link and for your positive attitude.

  17. These are great tips, Dianne. I appreciate how your Q & A questions are short yet evocative. I am definitely a beginner at interviewing and get quite nervous, so I have to remind myself that in other situations, I’m generally good a talking with others and am a good listener. It’s like a mantra to try and break the mystique of The Interview. I think practice is key to improving, and know I have to push myself to do more.

    I’m wondering about the ethics of translated interviews. I suppose you just have to make your best effort to stay true to the source, but have felt in muddy water trying to figure out the best way to convey the speaker’s exact words in English.

    • It’s normal to be nervous during an interview, especially if you’re excited about the person or you’re new to it. I don’t know anything about translating interviews, though. I imagine there are some expressions that don’t translate well.

  18. Thanks for these great tips, Dianne. I’m new to the world of interviewing and really just had to make it up as I went along, but am VERY glad I worked out one of the tips – research! – by myself. Such an important one to remember.

    • You’re welcome. You can never go wrong by being over-prepared. The hard part is paring down all the information into the most important points. Good luck on the interviews.

  19. This is the best! Dianne I love how authenic you are! I’m just starting out on my blog and recently I started having quests. Sometimes I struggle with pace and I find myself talking so fast that I fumble my words “No Touch down” lol What can I do?

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