It happens to us all at some point or another.
We have to write an article that requires an interview, or “get quotes.” For writers who are naturally introverted, doing an interview can cause enough anxiety to asphyxiate us. But, if you prepare well enough, doing an interview can be quite easy.
For writers doing an interview can cause enough anxiety to asphyxiate us.
And once it’s easy, you can relax long enough for it to be…actually enjoyable. Here’s how to do it.
There are different scenarios for doing an interview. They can be done in-person, by phone or by e-mail. Each of those has their pros and cons, and which one you pick depends on factors such as time, geography and interview depth.
For the purpose of this article, we will focus on phone interviews.
Set an Appointment
Depending on the depth of your interview, you will need between 10 and 30 minutes.
If you go shorter than that, you won’t get enough information. If you go longer than that, give your poor source a break.You aren’t Dan Rather.
Contact the source first to set an appointment. Setting the appointment can be done by phone call or via e-mail, but never delve into your questions on initial contact. You don’t know where the source is or what they are doing. They could be at Wendy’s taking their kid to the bathroom, and you are asking about their company’s fiscal policy.
Research the Topic
There is nothing more unprofessional than calling a source and having no idea what you are talking about. Get informed about the topic first. You don’t have to be an expert. But, if you are asking about the mayor’s new bond proposal…find out about it…duh.
Write the Questions
A good tip on question writing is to first free write every question you think you might want to ask.
Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Who is your reader and what might they want to know? What do you want to know? Use open-ended questions, based on who, what, when, where, why and how. Catchall conversation starters like, “Tell me about…” or “Talk about…” can let the source just speak their mind, and reveal things you would not have thought to ask.
You can also use scenario questions like, “What might you say to a reader who…” or “I’m thinking of someone who…what might you say to that person?” This type of question works well with topics that might otherwise put your source on the defensive.
They can also be a way to allow the reporter to bring in their own bias or experience, and give the source a fair chance to respond to it. Be careful, though, not to turn it into a debate. Listen, hear their point, and back off.
Organize the Questions
College journalism classes teach you to make an actual outline with the topic categories being the Roman Numerals, and individual questions being the Letter Headings. It isn’t necessary to get that formal, but you do need to organize your questions into a topic areas.
It allows your source to mentally follow your questions, giving you better quotes. Looking at your free written questions, some topic categories should jump out. Organize related questions together, giving you a natural flow. Once you do this, you will find many of your other questions can be combined, or may be redundant or irrelevant.
Use the Universal Questions
There are two questions that I have found to be the best questions, applicable in every circumstance. The first, they teach you in journalism classes. Once you get to the end of all your questions, ask:
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Journalism lore teaches about entire scandals being uncovered at the behest of that question. I’ve never been that lucky. But I’ve had sources use the moment to clarify answers, or to correct misinformation that I had assumed.
What do you LOVE about [what you do]?
I heard a story about a reporter who used this universally and got legendary quotes. So, I began using it, and it is now my favorite question. This works especially well if you are talking to a professional in a non-profit or charity organization. You can get to the heart of why they do what they do, and they will produce some beautiful answers.
I also like to think it encourages them. It’s so easy to get caught up in the daily munitae of our jobs, that we can lose track of why we are doing it. To ask them to take a moment, and articulate why they are doing what they do, I hope, in some way reminds them.
Type the Questions in Conversation Form (Optional)
This is an extra step that helps the interview novice. Once you have your interview questions all organized, type out your questions, particularly your introduction, in conversation form. Type out the literal words you hope to say. Put gaps between questions to break it up visually on the screen, and add in reminders for pauses.
Now, obviously, when you get on the phone, you want your words to sound natural and free-flowing. An interview is a conversation, so you shouldn’t read from a script like a call center rep in Bangladesh.
But, this extra step serves as a back-up for the beginner. If you get lost, nervous, or tongue-tied during the interview, no worries. Just begin reading from your screen. If it’s written close enough to your speech patterns, you will sound somewhat natural, and your mind will come back to you mid-way through the question.
Use Good Phone Etiquette
Usually you arrange for you to call them at the stated time. But in some instances, they will call you. Since you are likely using your personal cell phone for this task, adapt a tiny tip for professionalism.
Instead of saying, “Hello?” answer the phone with, “This is [your first name].” This just makes it sound less like they called someone’s personal cell phone, and more like they called an office extension. Also, just in case you miss their call, make sure your voice mail sounds professional.
Take Notes and Use a Proven Call Recorder App
Find a silent room where you will not, under any circumstances, be disturbed. Lock the door if you must.
Call recorder apps are highly recommended, but make sure you try it beforehand, and know how to use it. During the interview, put the phone on speaker, and still take lots of notes. If your call recorder app randomly decides not to work and you have no notes, you will have to remember your quotes. Not a good idea.
Finally, make sure not to go over your stated 10-30 minutes. I once had a source get upset with me for calling five minutes late because she was very tightly scheduled. She informed me very hotly that she would probably be getting in the car toward the end of our interview. I apologized and made sure to end the interview five minutes early.
Once you get through all of your questions, or reach the end of your appointment, you can close the interview by thanking the source for their time.
Have an approximate time period for when and how they can read the finished product, and instructions for them to send in any graphics or photos. Then end the call on time. Fill in any gaps in your notes right away so as not to misquote them.
And that’s it! Easy as pie, right? With time, conducting interviews will become a natural part of your freelance writing business.
Now it’s your turn – have you ever done an interview before? Tell us about it in the comments!