5 Journalistic Tips for Conducting Better Interviews
When I started working as a writer and editor, I thought Q&As were easy. Step one, find someone interesting and convince them to speak. Step two, speak to them. Step three, write it up. Simple.
My first interview, with a United Nations diplomat for a Swiss lifestyle magazine, proved me wrong. After a recording equipment malfunction, I was so flustered I didn’t push him to elaborate on any of his points. When I sat down to write it up, all I had was a bunch of platitudes. I’ve never included the final piece, which ended up reading like a press release, in my writing portfolio.
Conducting interviews gets easier with practice, though. Since that first disaster, I’ve been lucky enough to improve by interviewing people like one of Google’s first employees and Elon Musk’s less well-known but equally accomplished brother. And now I continue to hone my skills as a content strategist for Think with Google. But for marketers who don’t have time to learn the hard way, there are a few tips for pulling off the perfect interview.
Do more homework
“My only true advice for anyone carrying out an interview is to embrace the Boy Scout’s motto: be prepared,” freelance writer Lawrence Grobel told me over email. This philosophy helped him land the famously private Marlon Brando for a set of interviews with Playboy Magazine in 1978. “If someone is reclusive or unresponsive, the more you show you’re prepared, the better your chances of getting them to open up,” he said.
Being prepared doesn’t mean scanning a Wikipedia page a few minutes before the interview. “You can’t make yourself an expert on everything, but you can try,” journalist David Marchese explained. Readers have shared his Quincy Jones interview for Vulture 600,000 times on Facebook since it was published in February. “First, I immerse myself in the subject … Second, I read as deeply and as widely around the subject as possible.”
Even lower-profile subjects will have some sort of online presence—perhaps a presentation they’ve uploaded to YouTube or an article they’ve written. How do you know when you’ve done enough research? “You get to a point in this process where you start to see information repeated,” Marchese says. “That’s a good sign you’ve done as much research as will be fruitful.”
Put your subject at ease
Regardless of whether your subject is well-known or not, the person answering questions is probably nervous. If you want them to open up, you have to put them at ease.
Start by getting your own nerves under control. “People mirror the interviewers’ behavior,” Marchese said. “If you’re nervous and uptight, there’s a good chance the other person will feel less comfortable. If you’re relaxed, open, upbeat and curious, the person you’re talking to will mirror that.”
Another way of making your subject comfortable is to share something relatable about yourself. “I always try to find a common bond with the person I’m interviewing,” Yesha Callahan, deputy managing editor for the Root, told me. She recently applied the technique in an interview with Denzel Washington. “Because I wanted to build a rapport with him, the first thing I mentioned was that he knew my cousin, and had even given him his first break as an actor. From that point on, it was like talking to an old friend.”
If you’re interviewing someone you already know, such as an executive at your company, assume they have little experience speaking on the record. It’s always a good idea to talk them through the process beforehand.
“When you’re speaking with internal people, you can be more direct,” said Ken Wheaton, published novelist and former editor-in-chief of AdAge. “Warn them that some of the questions might be tough and could make them feel uncomfortable, but remind them that it’s a safe space. It’s not ‘gotcha’ journalism. I find doing that makes people more relaxed and less likely to answer in a way that sounds scripted.”
If you’ve ever listened to a speaker read off notes during a presentation, you know how lifeless that experience can be. The same applies for interviews. Rather than rattling off your list of questions, focus on having a conversation.
One way of doing this is to take the time to learn your questions. “Throughout the research process, I’m taking down notes, which I’ll then condense into four or five pages of actual questions. Then I try and memorize them by reading them maybe twenty to thirty times,” Marchese said. By doing this in advance, he can spend the interview connecting with the subject rather than staring down at a piece of paper. “Things might go in a different direction from my planned questions, but if I’ve memorized what it is I want to ask, I know I won’t clam up or run out of things to ask.”
If you don’t think you can sustain a conversation while taking down notes of everything being said, turn to technology for help. “Unless it’s on video, most of my interviews are done over a conference line, which means I can record them. I’d rather not take notes while the subject is talking, as I don’t want to miss anything,” Callahan said.
Find the right mix of questions
All great interviews have one thing in common: they reveal something new, useful, interesting, or controversial. Occasionally the subject will offer that up on a plate, but don’t bank on it. Instead, prepare some tough questions and be confident enough to ask them.
“When I’m preparing my questions, I don’t just draw on press releases and positive pieces,” Wheaton said. “I actually go out of my way to read what the critics have been saying.” If that’s hard for journalists, it’s even more difficult for marketers, given that the line between their work and PR can be thin. But you owe it to both the reader and the subject to go beyond softball questions. “Readers aren’t interested in something that sounds like a sales pitch. And your subject wants to come across as someone who has something compelling to say.”
Of course, you probably don’t want to put someone on their heels right away. Even if you ask the right questions, the order you ask them can derail a good conversation. “Don’t let the sensitive topics be the first thing you talk about,” Marchese warned. “It’s useful to spend the first part of the interview just asking more general questions. Once you’ve built more of a rapport, then it’s easier to ask the higher stake ones.”
Edit what you can
Once you’ve done research and conducted the interview, remember that the hardest part is still to come: turning a long and possibly meandering conversation into something people want to read.
This might seem counterintuitive, but you’re going to want to edit your Q&A. So where do you begin? Start by identifying a common thread running throughout the answers.
“You don’t want a transcript,” Wheaton said. “A transcript is boring. There still needs to be a narrative flow. Just because you asked the questions and got the answers in a certain order doesn’t mean they need to appear that way.”
On his quest to create a better Q&A, Wheaton can be just as ruthless with his own words as he is with those of the subject. “I always edit down my questions. Your final questions should be as short as possible while still getting the point across. The reader wants to hear from the subject, they’re not interested in what you have to say.”Image by Jenny McCabe