20 Interview Tips for Writers

Posted on January 16, 2012

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Any journalist will tell you that the most crucial factor in writing a successful article is the interview.  Whether you’re a reporter asking questions of one source or a public relations executive interviewing a suite full of leaders, the way you prepare for and conduct fact-finding interviews will determine your success.  Just as fancy editing really can’t disguise bad videography, fancy words and phrases won’t be able to cover up a poor job of reporting, where important facts have been overlooked during the interview and key avenues have been left unexplored.

Keep the following 20 recommendations in mind to prepare yourself properly for the interview, and the actual writing will become an easy final step in the journalistic process:

  1. Research the topic to understand underlying issue and terminology.
  2. Always develop questions in advance. Don’t go into an interview to hold a conversation or you’ll end up with small talk. Take the time to develop the questions that will lead to the information you seek.
  3. Ask open-ended questions, not those that can be answered only by a yes or no.  Use a who, what, where, when, why and how framework to cover the topic.
  4. Of these questions, how and why usually are the most important, because they get to causes, motivations and solutions.  Look at every aspect of each of these elements to develop questions like:
    • Why is the company doing this?
    • Why does the market need this product?
    • Why now?
    • Why should people care about this?
    • How are you going to do this?
    • How does your product differ from those of competitors?
    • How are you going to structure your company to achieve this?
    • How can people use your product?
    • How will your product change the way people work, live or play?
  1. Don’t be afraid to offer your own theory or the theories of others in developing questions for your interview subject to comment on.
  2. Ensure your questions relate to newsworthy topics.
  3. Develop questions that have built-in newsworthiness: firsts, successes, trends, controversy.
  4. Relate questions to other things happening in the industry or in the world to obtain answers that have meaningful context and that become inherently newsworthy.
  5. Be pro-active. Don’t simply ask the questions on your sheet and record the answers. Start with the questions, but ask follow-up questions if the response is unclear, incomplete or open to other interpretations.
  6. Guide the source to appropriate areas, but be open to his or her view of what’s important.
  7. Don’t just ask the source to “talk about” the subject, unless you don’t have enough information to formulate questions. You may use this as a preliminary information-gathering technique, but you should have questions in mind to pursue subsequently.
  8. Focus the questioning to get to what you need.
  9. Don’t be afraid to ask “stupid questions,” but preface the interview by saying, “I know some of the information I’ll be requesting from you, but I want to get it in your voice.  So forgive any ‘stupid questions’—I just want to get it right and in your terms.”
  10. The biggest content problem with writing is failing to obtain or understand the basic information from the interviewee’s perspective. If you don’t understand what something means, ask for an explanation or clarification.
  11. If your source says something that you don’t understand or that raises questions, state your interpretation of what he means and ask for verification.
  12. Be a good listener. Don’t get so involved in your note-taking that you overlook clues and implications from the interviewee’s responses. Likewise, offer your own interpretation, point of view or analogy to see if it correlates with the source’s thinking.
  13. Use questions to explore new trends, facts or opinions for which your interviewee may be the source.
  14. Ask open-ended questions that give the interviewee a chance to interpret, explain or express an opinion on something.
  15. Always follow up to elicit additional information that may be relevant but not immediately apparent.  For example, offer refutations to or questions about the interviewee’s interpretation or opinion.  Then obtain his or her responses. Don’t engage in a debate, however; instead, present refutations or doubts that have been expressed by a third party: “Some industry executives are saying…,” “Folks on the other side of the issue might claim…,”  “We’re reading that…..”
  16. Find out everything you can about your source’s credentials for the claims he or she makes—education, projects, offices, inventions, awards, personal experiences.

Finally, do a reality check of your notes after the interview and before you leave. Do you have newsworthy information?  What additional questions do you need to ask to get the news you feel is in this story? What questions do you need to revisit to get more explanation? Looking at your notes as a whole, does a new trend or development emerge that you should explore?  Who else should you interview to fill gaps or obtain important information?

With a determination to ask the right questions in the right way, your reporting assignment will prepare you well for the writing the article.

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