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A Beginner's Guide to Interviewing
by Dawn Copeman

Return to Conducting Research & Interviews · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

For a very long time I avoided any writing jobs that involved interviewing people. Interviewing people meant talking to people and these people would expect me, as the interviewer to know what I was doing. So, because I didn't know how to interview and because I was, quite frankly terrified of interviewing, I kept my writing life easy and just didn't offer to write any articles where an interview would be needed.

But, if you want to progress as a writer, then at some point you need to stretch yourself, to go beyond your comfort zone. At some point you will need to do an interview.

I had to make this leap when I began writing for a food news website. The first feature I was asked to write involved interviewing not one, but six people and incorporating their comments into the story. Terrified at first, I read all I could about interviewing and soon found out that far from being the horrible experience I had anticipated, interviewing people can be fun.

In fact, it's so much fun that I now actively seek to include interviews in as many articles as I can. Interviews are a great way to add color and salability to your articles. The reality is that editors want new angles on stories, new facts and the only way you're going to get these is by doing an interview. So if you, too, want to make the leap to being a confident interviewer, here are some interviewing basics for you.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

This is the Golden Rule when it comes to interviewing. Before you pick up the phone or send off an email you need to know exactly what it is you want to find out from this person and what you need to put into your article. To do this you need to think research and plan.

Think about what you want to get from the interview. Are you looking for anecdotes, quotes on new research, stories to illustrate a point? Carefully think about the article you are writing and analyse what you need to get from the interview.

Also think about how you are going to record the interview? Are you going to record the conversation? If so, ensure your interviewee is happy with this and ensure your phone can work with the recording equipment.

If you don't have the facility to record the conversation, are you going to take notes in shorthand or in your own version of speedwriting? If you are taking notes from the interview, do make sure you accurately record all information, especially dates, names, facts and figures.

Research the subject so you know what you're talking about. Visit websites and read as much as you can on the topic. You need to be able to talk sensibly to the interviewee and also to be able to understand the relevance of what they say to you. This is especially crucial if you're writing a technical article such as one on the Le Web 3, or an article relating to health or legal issues. But even if your article is on something like the top ten bikinis of 2007, you still need to know about bikini trends, designers, prices etc.

If you are doing a celebrity interview, then you need to do even more research. You need to read all the recent interviews they've given to make sure yours isn't just a re-hash of what has gone before. You also need to know some basic facts about your celebrity, such as their biographical details and details of their latest project to help you devise your questions.

Plan your questions. When you've completed your research, you can start to think about the questions you are going to ask.

Do start with easy questions to put your interviewee at ease and give them time to 'warm up'. You might be feeling very nervous about the interview but remember, they are also nervous too, especially if they're not used to being interviewed. (There is an exception to this - the celebrity interview. They've been interviewed hundreds of times and everyone knows the basics about them. If you do find yourself interviewing a celebrity, do some extra research and make each question count. Get straight to the facts and ask them about their new book/film/TV role/charity patronage etc. You don't want your celebrity getting bored and finishing the interview before you've found out anything useful.)

Do ask a mix of easy and complicated questions. It can be too easy, when you've done lots of research to overlook asking the simple questions, but remember, your readers haven't done your research. Don't overlook the basics that your readers will want to know.

Do base your questions on new facts, trends or research the things that your editor and readers will want to know about.

When you've got your list of questions, it's time to do the dreaded interview itself. The first thing you need to do is to arrange a time for the interview. Whenever possible, don't just ring up and interview there and then. Be courteous and ask your interviewee when it would be convenient for them to be interviewed by you. Also think about when it would be convenient for you to do the interview, no-one is going to sound professional if they're constantly being interrupted by babies crying, dogs barking or the doorbell ringing. Try and arrange a mutually convenient time for the interview. Give them an estimate of the amount of time the interview is likely to take and also let them know the topic of the interview. This gives them time to think about what they are going to be asked about and prepare their answers.

Doing the Interview

Take a few minutes prior to your interview to re-read your notes and your questions and to focus your mind on what you aim to achieve from this interview.

Take a deep breath and begin the interview. Speak slowly, clearly and confidently and remember that most people are happy to be interviewed and keen to get their point of view across.

Be polite and be neutral. You are not there to judge the person or their opinions. Just talk to them, ask them your questions and respond to their answers. If you start off or become antagonistic you are not going to get the information you need.

Do be prepared to vary from your list of questions in the light of what you learn during the interview. If your interviewee says something you want to know more about then ask them about it.

Thank the person for their time at the end of the interview and if possible, let them know when and where the story will be appearing.

After the Interview

After you've calmed down from having completed a successful interview you need to write up your notes as soon as possible, especially if you've taken notes in short-hand or your own version of speedwriting. Write everything up while it is still fresh in your mind. Even if you recorded the interview on tape, you need to type up a transcript as this is not only easier to work from when putting your article together, but also because transcripts of interviews are required by most magazines to ensure the interview actually took place and you're not reporting things out of context.

If, on typing up your notes you find you are unsure about what you've written regarding a key fact, ring back and double check your fact. It is better to admit to having made a mistake now rather than have an article run with a blatant error in it.

Finally, write a thank you note to the person you interviewed to once again thank them for their time. It always pays to be courteous to interviewees; you never know when you'll need to interview them again.

However, if this still seems too daunting for you, then why not do things the 'modern way' and do an email interview?

Advantages of Email Interviews

  • They are faster to do. You only need to type out your questions and hit the send button.
  • There's no transcribing of answers involved, you can just copy straight from the interviewee's reply.
  • They are easier for the interviewee to fit in around their work schedule and it gives them more time to think about their replies.

Disadvantages of Email Interviews

  • They can sit in email inboxes for days or weeks before being answered.
  • They could get no further than the spam filter box
  • They are very rigid and offer no scope for colorful, off the cuff remarks and anecdotes that can add color to a story. Nor do they offer you the chance to follow up on an answer with a new, unscripted question that their previous answer prompts.

I hope these tips will help you to begin doing interviews. I can't say I don't still get nervous about interviewing people, I do, but it gets easier every time I do it and I've seen the added dimension an interview can give to an article.

Finally, if you dream of being published in the big glossies like Redbook and you want to write alongside the big guns, you've got to learn to write to their standard and that means, amongst other things, getting to grips with interviewing. So go on, make a start today.

Find Out More...

Conducting Interviews, by Moira Allen

Conducting E-mail Surveys and Interviews, by Moira Allen

Don't Reach for Just Any Old Quote, by John Rains

Copyright © 2006 Dawn Copeman

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Dawn Copeman is a UK-based freelance writer and educator who has published over 300 articles on the topics of travel, cookery, history, health and writing. An experienced commercial freelancer, Dawn contributed several chapters on commercial writing to Moira Allen's Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (2nd Edition).


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