How to Conduct Compelling Journalistic Interviews

I was preparing to interview Tom Hayden for my book. He graciously agreed to meet me at his office in Los Angeles.

My interview had nothing to do with Hayden’s years at the University of Michigan when he was a student editor at the University of Michigan school paper, a founding member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1961, and one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement, and historic document calling for a more peaceful world.  Hayden was also a Freedom Rider in the Deep South and was arrested and beaten in rural Georgia and Mississippi during the early 60’s.

What I was interested in was his perspective on the 60’s political environment as a whole. His insight would help me gain a better understanding as someone who was such a major player during that time.

By doing all this background reading, I was better able to understand his point of view on the 60’s which is what I was after.  I needed his specific biographical background to understand his point of view.

Do your homework for the interview

Lots of articles talk about preparing for your questions, but long before you do that you should be reading up about the person. Even if your interview is focused on a particular niche, such as a new product from the company, you still want to know about the person.

I had flown down from San Francisco for the meeting. I had 30 minutes of his time, so I had to make the most of it. Besides not daring to be late, I mapped out exactly how I would get there with time to get lost and still be early.

Of course, if your subject is not within travelling distance and in a different time zone, be sure you have the timing accurate. You certainly don’t want to wake the person at 2 AM?

These were lessons I learned along the way. Conducting an interview for any article and publication is more than just asking questions. The interaction between the interviewer and interviewee can make the difference between a very revealing result and one that is lacking in depth.

  • What does this product mean to your subject, perhaps personally?
  • Where did the idea come from? Was the product created out of a personal experience?
  • What is the background of the person in charge of a department, program or position in a group, campaign or organization?
  • Personal stories make the difference between a “marketing” interview and a personal interview. The marketing will already be there, but the stories are what makes the difference.

Taping the interview

Be sure to ask if you can tape the interview for accuracy, whether in person or on the phone. Many states require this as a law, but before the subject asks you, ask. In some cases, the interviewee will tape is as well.

So, on to some tips about the structure of a good interview:

  • When asking for an interview, it is better to call the person rather than asking for an interview in. By calling you make a more professional impression and it is more difficult to say no one the phone.
  • Again, always do research on the person and the topic before you ask for the interview.
  • Have at least 10 questions prepared in advance. It is likely you will need to follow up as you read through the information and may want to clarify an answer. Ask the interviewee if they mind. Most agree as they understand and clarification serves you both.
  • Ask your subject about the most convenient time for their schedule and be specific about how much time you may need. For most article interviews, you shouldn’t need more than one hour maximum.
  • Be sure you exchange contact information. You just never know what can happen.
  • Be clear if your interview is for a specific publication, your blog, an assignment or on speculation. Honesty is the hallmark of a professional.
  • Be prepared to send your questions in advance. Many times people want to be prepared. You may want to balk at this as you are hoping to catch them off guard. However, you want the interview and need to be flexible. You can always through in that special question during the discussion.
  • If your subject will only be interviewed via email, then you may not have a choice. Try to be sure you can extend your questions to get as much information as possible. But, don’t make the list so long they subject balks at the length.
  • It is very important to stick to the timetable you asked for. A trick a professional taught me is to remove your watch or set your cell phone down in front of you. Be sure to tell your subject are doing this to keep track of the time. This way you are not looking at your wrist. People appreciate it when you show consideration for their busy schedule. It also shows you are a professional.
  • Never sabotage your subject by throwing in highly personal or controversial topics by surprise. You can still get highly personal information by prefacing your question with something like, “May I ask you about such and such?” If the subject doesn’t want to talk about it, you wouldn’t have gotten an answer anyway. This way you have maintained a good relationship rather than be thrown out the door.
  • The interview is not about you, so although the person may ask personals questions, keep it short. You only have so much time, so it is nice if the person is interested, but pay attention to the time. You will need every minute.
  • Stay professional. You are not visiting with a friend.
  • Listen to your subject. There may be something in an answer you didn’t expect and it may be worthy of follow-up. You don’t have to stick to your script of something better comes along in the conversation you didn’t expect.
  • Once finished, always leave the door open for follow up questions and a check for accuracy.
  • Finally, send a thank you note and send along a copy of the interview once it is published.

A well conducted interview can also be an excellent resource for future reference and introductions. You always want to leave the person happy to have worked with you.

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