Interviewing features strongly in any writing career and requires empathy. It is important to secure an interviewee’s trust, or they should believe they have no option other than speak to you.
Each type of interview requires technique adjustment. If writing a profile of a business leader, for example, you will get them on your side if you relax. Dis-ease is contagious and blocks dialogue.
I often told interviewees I hoped they would enjoy “our chat.” I said I wanted to write about them so I could help readers understand what made them successful and, if they were willing, to share plans for their business.
I would respect anything off the record or that they preferred to be unattributable. I would raise such points again at the end of the interview so there was no ambiguity.
A relaxed and friendly demeanour often ensures interviewees drop their guard.
Do not let press relations personnel stage-manage the proceedings. Your attention should focus solely on your interviewees. Treat them with care and imbue them with confidence.
When interviewing on the phone for news, you still need to get your interviewees’ confidence, even if they are con artists selling non-existent timeshares.
Be polite but firm and do not, under any circumstances, let them avoid answering. Once they slam the phone down, you get nothing apart from a “declined to comment” so be clever in your approach.
Tell hostile news story interviewees you want to give them an opportunity to present their side because there is always more than one side to a story. Get them to let their guard down and then swoop for the kill.
When you attend an interviewee’s workplace, start with easy questions. They might be about an award, or a job promotion.
The interviewee might have given you an hour, so you have time to break them in gently. The more relaxed and confident they are with you, the more they will reveal.
Time is even more of the essence when you interview on the phone. You have caught someone in the middle of lunch, on their way to a meeting, or picking the kids up from school. Get your key questions in as fast as you can.
More recently, I have conducted many interviews by email. This can seem efficient on time and labour, but it is often not sufficient. The problem with emailed interviews is replies are not always spontaneous. You might get considered answers, but you are unlikely to get the off-guard comments that can make your story.
Email interviews can become unwieldy with messages going backward and forward, seeking clarification and follow-ups. Not everyone is a writer like you are. Answers can be ambiguous. Ambiguity is the enemy and can be problematic.
I have interviewed people about highly technical subjects. If I feel out of my depth, I say that, for the reader to understand what they are saying, I need to understand it, so please explain it to me like I’m a two-year-old. I got that one from the film, Philadelphia.
People in the computer/software industry frequently obfuscate by talking in their own tech-lingo. Nothing is so complicated that it cannot be simplified.
Successful interviewing requires preparation. There is nothing worse than getting to the end of your allotted hour and finding you’ve not asked the most important questions. Research your interviewee. They will treat you seriously if you have bothered to find out as much as you can about them prior to the interview.
For more tips on interviewing, order my book, The Bounty Writer: How to Earn Six Figures as an Independent Freelance Journalist – Beachy Books.
Andrew Don, trading as editorial director of Don’s Hard News, is a multi-disciplined media service with the emphasis on news, business, features, analysis, online news digests and leader writing. Andrew Don is a former managing editor of Peach Report, he launched award-winning magazine SalonFocus and has specialist knowledge of the grocery sector. He is a published author. Media outlets in which his work has appeared include: The Independent/Independent on Sunday, Financial Times, The Sunday Telegraph, The Observer, The Guardian, London Evening Standard, The Sun, The Daily Express, The Daily Mirror, Financial Times Food Business, The Sunday Times, The Publican’s Morning Advertiser, The Grocer, Property Week, Restaurant Magazine, Asian Business (contributing business editor), Retail World (Consultant Editor), UK Editor Food & Drink Daily, Estates Gazette Interactive, Chemical News & Intelligence, Farmers Weekly Interactive, Independent Travel News, Press Gazette, Home & Family and Retail Week among many others. Also published under the pseudonym of Jason Andrews in The Independent and The Guardian. Andrew Don is author of paperbacks The Bounty Writer, Fathers Feel Too, and an e-novella, Virtuality.
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