Sometimes, interviewing people will help strengthen your story. Perhaps you want to interview your favorite high school teacher or a local politician. Maybe you will even get the opportunity to interview a celebrity who ties into your story. You may find that an interview will lend a dimension to your story that can help bring it to life. However, there are some things that you should know before you sit down to interview someone. There are techniques that will help you interview effectively and efficiently. These tips will help you conduct an interview that will get the information that you want and need.
Most interviews fall into one of three categories:
- To get your subject's knowledge on a topic
- To get your subject's opinion on a topic
- To feature your subject and the topic of your story
You should know what your goal is before you start the interview, that way you will know the line of questioning to use. Make sure that you hold your focus on the questions that will serve your goals. You don't want to waste time on obtaining useless information.
You should have at least a basic knowledge of your subject. If you are interviewing a band, for instance, don't ask them how many albums they have released, walk into the interview knowing how many they have released. You waste time when you ask questions that you should have already researched. You also lose credibility. This can cause your subject to clam up and not be forthcoming with information. You may end up missing the story there.
Write down your questions well ahead of time and be prepared. You may have to stray from your list from time to time and you may even have to improvise, but having a good basic list of questions is just good common sense.
Your subject may have some questions that they want you to ask or they may have information that they want to offer. If it is relevant to your story, or if you have time, let them. You often find value in what they have to add, and sometimes you can find a Story in there if you listen hard enough.
Too many people, in their haste to get that interview, fail to listen. This cannot be stressed enough. This most basic skill is integral to conducting a good interview. You may ask a question and the way that your subject answers may prompt you to ask another question that is not on the list. If you aren't listening, you may miss it, and miss the “real” story.
Most people have heard a certain famous interview host who softballs questions to his guests. This unnamed person has interviewed everyone from royalty, politicians, famous celebrities. Sometimes the person being interviewed will answer a question a juicy response, leaving the audience wanting to hear an explanation or to have that tidbit explored further, yet he’ll jump to the next softball question.
Host: So, tell me about how your childhood affected your acting in preparing for this movie role.
Guest: Well, when I was five years old, I was kidnapped by foreign warlords and held hostage for thirty days, during which I was tortured and beaten to release my father’s vault combination.
Host: Uh huh. So, tell me about this movie, what’s the plot?
Try to stay away from yes or no questions and ask open ended questions instead. An open ended question prompts the subject to give an answer that is more meaningful and offers better information. You get more of your subject, their knowledge and opinions, when you ask open ended questions. "Why" and "How" questions are very good for prompting a full answer. Instead of asking "Did you like the Beatles?" you can ask "What did you like or dislike about the Beatles?" The answer can then lead to a great deal of good material.
In our above scenario dialog, the host asks open ended questions, but he doesn’t listen and he doesn’t follow up. He’s too eager to move on to the next set of questions on his list.
You see a lot of interviewers asking some form of the question "And how did you feel about that?" In fact, it is somewhat of a cliché, but it is a very effective cliché. Go ahead and ask it; you are liable to get some great answers. We would warn though to be sensitive, unlike too many TV journalists who are not above sticking a microphone into a victim’s face who has just lost a loved one to a great disaster, “So, how do you feel about what happened?” Of course they feel bad, so using causal judgment will help you determine when this question is appropriate and can draw someone out, and when it’s downright tacky or even hostile.
Interviewing can be very interesting, fun and informative. You can get great material for your stories and you may even find some prompts for subsequent stories.