Al Gore had just invented the Internet when I landed my first journalism gig, but it was not yet widely available to the public. While the technology since then has made it easier in some respects to prepare and conduct an interview, the basic skills have remained the same. Here are three tips for conducting an interview that have not changed over the past three decades even as the technology has.
In the dark ages, newspapers had morgues where dead stories and photographs were stored and indexed according to subject, date, and people. A librarian kept track of the archives and if a reporter needed historical information on a person or event, the librarian tracked it down. Larger newspapers kept files on microfiche or microfilm, in which newspaper pages were miniaturized on a flat film (microfiche) or a rolled film (microfilm). Journalists used a reader to enlarge and read the files. Scribes at smaller papers drove to the local library to scan the micro files. It was very time-consuming and not something easily accomplished for a breaking news story.
Microfiche is still in use, though it’s harder to find the film and machines to produce and read them, according to three document-scanning company blogs I read to research this musing. As late as 2009, the Gainesville Times was even reporting some organizations found micro files to be superior storage devices over digital.
I still use my local library for research, though I haven’t touched a microfiche machine in decades. But I believe I’m in the majority by using the Internet to perform most of my profile research these days.
I currently write articles mostly for associations and other non-profits. When I receive an assignment to interview a subject, I always start by checking their LinkedIn profile. Many of my subjects are professionals and have a LinkedIn presence. I peruse their work history and see if they have any published articles listed. A caveat here is many people do not keep their profiles updated. It’s not unusual to find a previous employer listed as the current employer or out-of-date credentials.
I then look for a Facebook and Twitter presence. Facebook is great for getting a feel for the whole person beyond their professional accomplishments. Right after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, I was asked to interview someone whose Facebook page screamed “Happy Cubs Fan.” By congratulating her for “her” victory, I was able to instantly develop a rapport and conduct a friendly, productive interview.
After I exhaust social media possibilities, I conduct a Google search. I often find stories about awards the person has won that pertain to the subject matter or articles they have written about the subject matter. If you have access to Lexis-Nexis, you can find peer-reviewed articles that are often hidden behind firewalls.
Once you have researched the interviewee and possibly the subject matter, write up some prepared questions. Writing for organizational magazines is different from writing for a media outlet. As a journalist, it’s akin to committing a felony to allow sources to review your story prior to publication, although some outlets allow you to run direct quotes by the sources. In nonprofit writing, it’s routine to allow sources to read and correct stories before submission. For that reason, I often email my prepared questions to the interviewee a few days before the interview. Unless they thrive on attention, they most likely do not have much experience being interviewed and will be thankful for the time to prepare. Be sure you know what the rules of the publication are on this point before you take or don’t take action.
Once you’re in the interview, don’t strictly adhere to your prepared questions. Ask follow-up questions. Ask a question that pops up in your head. Ask for clarity. Ask for embellishment. Be curious. Who is this person and why does he or she think or act this way?
Ask one final question
The final question I ask in every interview is often the most important and one that is never shared in advance with my subject: “Is there anything I didn’t ask you that I should have?”
Most times, the subject responds with, “No. I don’t think so. Those were pretty good questions.” What follows then is 15 to 20 minutes of something near and dear to their heart that often becomes the nut of the story. Why? Because no matter how much research you do before an interview, you still only know the surface of the person. You don’t fully know what’s inside their head. Give them the opportunity to tell you and you’ll be wonderfully surprised.
These three tips have served me well over the years. What would you add to the list?
Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.