Petting Porcupines: How to Keep a Tough Interview Going By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Most people I’ve interviewed for newspaper and magazine articles enjoy speaking with me. They’re passionate about the topic, desire publicity or simply like chatting. Others aren’t like that.

Writing for a dozen or so different newspapers for the past decade, I have interviewed the “bad guy” quite a few times, such as the would-be proprietor of a proposed strip joint in a conservative town. (Public hostility had swelled so much the man brought a bodyguard with him to the town meetings.)

For a different piece, I interviewed parents grieving the loss of a child to cancer. Though it would seem these polar opposite interviewees would have little in common, a similar approach helped me get the conversation going, and keep it going.

1.) Give them a roadmap. As you seek an interview, sum up in a sentence how you plan to write the piece and your perspective. Most sensitive interviewees worry about the unknown.

2.) Learn as much as possible beforehand from press releases, pertinent sites, and people familiar with the situation. Background information helps shape effective questions.

I do this with every interview, but it especially helps when interviewing VIPs or other busy people. They like when you’ve done your homework and it can springboard into other articles. While writing for Home Business Magazine on George Foreman, I learned the former boxer and grill pitchman is also an avid vintage car collector. That resulted in my piece on him for Auto Restorer.

3.) Ask softer questions first to help the interviewee relax: confirm the spelling of names, titles and hometown or headquarters. As you continue, ask the tougher questions.

4.) Acknowledge whatever is making this interview awkward. Many times, interviewees are relieved for your being up front. “This is obviously a difficult time for you” Or, “It sounds like you’ve really been struggling”

5.) Shift the burden of asking the hard questions. “I’m sure many of our readers will wonder about” Or say, “I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment” Or “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but my editor wants to know” That tells interviewee I realize they’re uncomfortable but I’m personally not offended by what’s bothering them. I’m just doing my job.

6.) Look through the interviewee’s eyes to interview better. Recently, I was writing about a large agricultural business that had closed. The locals’ responses varied from “good riddance” to speculation as to what happened. Interviewing the owners was thorny since they were likely embarrassed about shuttering the operation that many had considered a blight. E-mailing them a list of questions in advance helped break the ice and at least gave me some input from the owners. They could take their time with their answers, and know I would not misunderstand them.

7.) Don’t get too emotional. Be understanding, but maintain your journalistic perspective to keep the interviewee talking. If things get too emotional, it can shut down the interview.

Other reporters verbally attacked the strip club guy during their interviews, resulting in pieces more like op/eds than news articles. I reported on the facts of the story (including outraged townspeople) and asked him how many jobs the club would bring to the town, tax revenue it would generate and amenities the club would offer. For my efforts, I was the only reporter granted an extended interview.

8.) If an interviewee wants to bail before you’re done, request if you may ask one remaining question – the one you need the most. It never hurts to ask. Always thank interviewees deeply for their time.

Petting porcupines isn’t easy, but with planning and care, it can be done.

Deborah Jeanne Sergeant has previously contributed to WritersWeekly HERE and HERE. She regularly writes for several regional and national publications; creates web copy and PR materials directly for companies and as a subcontractor for marketing firms; pens occasional works of fiction; and edits articles, screenplays and resumes. She has been writing fulltime since 2000. View her online portfolio at or join her as a Cheap Chow Hound at .