As a freelance writer, you’ll frequently need to interview important people for magazine, newspaper, and website articles, or for a book you’re writing. In this post I’ll give you a comprehensive list of the five key aspects of the interview process.
First: Getting Agreement for the Interview
Contact the person as soon as possible to actually set up the meeting. Phone is typically better than e-mail. Here’s what you need to do:
1. Identify yourself and state what you want and why you want it. This includes explaining what you’re writing, who the audience is, and the size of the audience.
2. State how long you would like the interview to be and how you want to do it. Be open to negotiation, especially if it is a famous person or someone with a very busy schedule.
3. Discuss whether the interview will be in-person, on the Internet, or over the phone. If you happen to live near the subject, or will be in the same area as the subject, in-person is optimal. It allows you to establish personal rapport that is difficult to create otherwise. Another option is to use a service that allows you to both use your computers and the Internet to view each other and talk; Skype is currently the number one service for that, although there are other options. Finally, there’s the old standby, the telephone.
4. Ask if the person has a media kit they can send you. You’ll find many people, especially famous ones, have a media kit with lots of useful information. FYI: check the person’s website first to see if the media kit is there; it often is.
Second: Scheduling the Interview
Schedule it so you have plenty of time after it’s complete to process the information and do what you need to do for your article.
Important: confirm the day, time, and length the day before, even if you can only leave a phone message or send an e-mail.
Your subject may ask to see the questions ahead of time. This is often a reasonable request: you want the subject to have good answers ready. Depending on the type of interview and the nature of your interviewee, you should also keep some questions in reserve for follow-up and so the interviewee can’t totally shape the interview to his or her liking.
Third: Before the Interview Happens
Thoroughly research the person so that you can formulate the best questions possible. Don’t waste the subject’s time by asking basic factual questions about her career when you can easily find the information on her website or in the autobiography she wrote.
Fourth: 11 Tips for the Actual Interview
1. Have your list of questions prepared and rehearsed well in advance.
2. Arrange the questions in a logical order and star the most important ones to make sure you get them answered.
3. Be willing to branch out from your prepared questions as the interview develops.
4. Let your subject talk at length as long as it’s on topic and will give you good information for your piece.
5. Be conversational, but remember that it’s not about you: it’s about her. Your subject should do at least 90% of the talking.
6. Dress appropriately. Better to be a bit overdressed than even slightly underdressed.
7. Ask questions that will spur your subject to talk at length. Don’t ask questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Build on journalism’s who-what-where-when-why-how system to create the best questions.
8. Only ask factual questions that you can’t find through research and that you know are relevant to your story.
9. Bring a recorder (or smart phone with a recording app) and pens and notepad. Record the entire process so you can get accurate quotes and information. Write down important info as you go along and note the approximate time on the recorder so you can refer to the recording later.
10. If you do the interview over the phone, make sure to take good and accurate notes.
11. Consider doing the interview via e-mail. You submit the questions and the subject writes answers and sends them back. Depending on what you need, this can be a very good way to go.
Fifth: After the Interview
You still have more to do (besides actually write your piece, that is):
- As soon as the meeting is complete, make sure that you actually have a good recording of the conversation. If the recorder missed some parts, fill in from memory.
- Contact the subject with any other questions you have.
- Ensure that any facts given to you by the subject are in fact accurate.
Any tips to add? Any personal stories about what went well or what went wrong with your interviews?