My Tried (and sometimes True) Interview Techniques

Last time, I wrote about where I got my ideas for the articles and profiles I write. I started out by getting the assignments from my editor.

Then I began seeing possibilities for my own stories everywhere i.e. in Starbucks, at bookstores, or on the street. I followed up on referrals from friends and information I found in newspapers, newsletters, or around my neighborhood. I let my curiosity lead me to hobbyists, collectors, and folks with unusual occupations.

So many people: so many interesting stories! Next I needed to to pick their brains, pry out their deepest secrets, find out how and why they do what they do! I had to interview them.

There are three main steps (or methods to my madness) in how I interview folks.

Before the interview

I first decide why I want to interview the person, what I hope to learn, what kind of story I want to write. (A lot of this will depend on where I hope to place or sell the story.) Will it be informative, inspiring, promotional, or…simply someone I personally want to know more about. (Having my own News & Reviews website, helps with that last one.)

I contact the person (on the spot or by phone) and set up a time and date. I let them know who I am, who I write for, and the general topic I want to cover.

Then I do a little research on the person or their specialty, occupation or craft. From my “research” I make a list of questions I want to ask.

I make sure I have a notebook, pens, MY CAMERA, and a tape recorder if it’s going to be a fact-heavy interview. (Fresh or recharged batteries are a given, of course)

During the Interview

I try to establish a conversational mood by commenting or complimenting (depending on where we meet) on our surroundings. I thank them for letting me interview them, tell them what I hope to write about, and get a bit of basic info from them (correct spelling of name, title if any, etc.)

Then I pick up my notebook and pen, turn on the recorder if using it, and dig right in with the first (and easiest) questions. I never stick strictly to my written questions. If something more interesting (or tantalizing) comes up in their answers, I will follow it like a vein of silver in a Colorado mine. And – confession-time here – sometimes I will ask a question I have no intention of using in my story, just because I want to know.

I mostly listen and add questions as promptings to keep them talking. I smile and encourage them with nods or soft, sympathetic sounds. I haven’t mastered the “silence strategy” yet, but I’m told that if you can simply remain silent, your subject will begin to fill it with more info. It’s usually too uncomfortable for me to do that.

I take “off the record” seriously and will never write something I’m asked not to. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear it, however. Secret confessions sometimes help me to understand where the person is coming from. I’ll take notes, and I might use the revelation to shade or slant the story, but not even that, if it is too sensitive.

If I get behind on my note taking, I ask them to repeat, slow down, or clarify what they said, especially if I plan to quote it in the story. (Quotes must be 100% accurate!) If they are showing me objects they’ve collected or made, I will ask if I can photograph them. Always at the end of the interview I will get several shots of them with something meaningful to the story. (Projects, pets, creations, gardens, workplace, etc.)

When the interview is winding down, I quickly look over my questions to see if I got everything I need, then I’ll ask if they want to tell me anything I didn’t ask about. (Great stuff sometimes comes out this way.)

I thank them, give them my card with contact info, and offer to send them a hard copy of the finished story (or the link, if it appears in an online magazine).

After the Interview

I review my notes (it’s easier to decipher my scribbling if I do this right away), underlining key words and looking for a really cool approach to the story. I also try to come up with a good strong opening statement – whether it’s dramatic, provocative, humorous, or teasing. What I want is something that will suck in the reader. Wait, that’s called a “hook” right?

I also look for facts that I might need clarified or explained. If I find any, I’ll do a brief call-back by phone.

And, the rule is to never show the interviewee the piece before it is published. But on occasion, under special circumstances, I have been known to do that.

(I’m such a softie!)

Next time: How I Edit or “Weight-watching for Writers”

4 thoughts on “My Tried (and sometimes True) Interview Techniques”

  1. Jackie, I'm so impressed with how logical and professional your approach is, while still allowing for those surprising and personal insights and touches. I've read several of your interviews, and now I know why they're so good. I was surprised you don't show the person the interview before it's published, but in thinking about it, it's probably a smart move!

    Interesting and enjoyable seeing how you work.



  2. Having read virtually all your articles, your personal interest ones are so compelling. The turtle story is still my favorite. It is the gentle side that makes them so good. It makes them memorable. And as you know, telling the truth is the only way to go.


  3. Hey these are the nice techniques to give the interview and surely you will get the success. Some of the job descriptions for you to apply are waiting for you.When asked about your past, give short, simple answers. Write down what you want to say about past employers – why you left, what you did. The answers should be one sentence – the bottom line, said in a completely positive way.This is a very useful resource. Interview sample questions are particularly appreciated.


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