How to Interview People
Being able to conduct a good interview is a staple of a writer's skill set. But what constitutes a good interview can differ according to the subject and the situation.
When you're new to the writing business, your first interviewing job will usually be difficult and nerve racking, and even an experienced writer will experience problems with interviewing from time to time.
How can you keep an interview on track? How can you make sure that your questions get answered? And how can you achieve that extra something which means your interview will be the one people remember?
Types of InterviewThere are two main types of interview you are likely to find yourself conducting during your career as a writer. The first is the research interview. This is about obtaining not snappy quotes you can publish, but information you can use for a novel, article, or similar project.
Research interviews are much lower pressure and can therefore be a good place to practice before you move on to the other sort of interview, the feature interview.
Feature interviews can be conducted in several different styles. To a large extent, this is governed by your subject and the type of publication you're working for. A small magazine which struggles to get access to celebrities will be anxious for you to be polite and flattering, whereas a newspaper looking for a scoop will often encourage you to be more aggressive when interviewing politicians.
If your interviewing job has been arranged by an editor, make sure you've discussed what approach it's appropriate for you to take.
PreparationNo matter what type of interview you're conducting, it's important to be prepared. Make sure you are thoroughly familiar with your interview subject. Do as much background research as you can (taking into account that time is money) and make sure you have plenty of notes which you can refer to if the conversation goes off track or starts to dry up. Talking to a stranger is always more difficult, so you'll feel more confident if you know more about your subject.
Depending on the nature of your interviewing job, you may be preparing your questions alone or under the supervision of an editor. Remember that you can always rely on getting a response to questions which offer the subject the opportunity to promote themselves or their product or service.
However, if you want unique answers, you'll have to be a bit more inventive and incisive. Don't be afraid to put the same question twice, in different forms, if you don't feel that you got a satisfactory answer the first time. You'll need around eight questions for the average celebrity interview, but try to have a couple spare in case you run into difficulty. With this groundwork in place, you can feel free to improvise a bit.
Dealing With DifficultiesNo matter how well you prepare an interview, things can always go wrong. Some interview subjects are more difficult than others. If you want to start out with an easy job, older celebrities are usually a good bet, as they're experienced at giving interviews and they don't (usually) have any big secrets to get cagey about.
Occasionally you will encounter an interview subject who just gives one word answers and seems to have little to say for themselves. In this case it can be worth throwing the interview open, acknowledging that it isn't getting anywhere and asking what they would like to talk about.
Be ready to suggest that you may have misinterpreted something about their actions or work, and express enthusiasm if they start to explain, encouraging them to talk a lot about it. Most people can be coaxed out of their shells this way with a bit of patience.
Interviewing children (for which you should always have their parent, guardian or agent present) can be tricky like this because you can't afford to be too pushy and they sometimes feel overawed by the process. In this case, try to share a bit of humour with them or ask about a subject of obvious importance to them (taking your cues from clothes, badges etc.) and then try to lead the subject back to what you want to discuss.
When your subject is actively trying to avoid being interviewed, you can still solicit answer, but you may need to be willing to step beyond the bounds of what you would normally consider polite behaviour. Most people will speak out eventually, however unwisely, if they feel they're going to be seriously misunderstood otherwise.
Finally, when the whole process is over, make notes immediately. You'll be surprised by how often reporters find themselves in trouble when dictaphones unexpectedly break. Make sure you have something to fall back on.