The process of interviewing is vital to every good story. Here are some tips to help you conduct a good interview.
1. The basics:
Get there on time. Assume that you’ll face traffic and parking
problems. It’s much better to be a few minutes early with nothing to do
than to keep your interviewee waiting, which is very poor etiquette.
Dress appropriately. If you're going to interview a businessman
or some government official, wear a suit or at least business casual.
If you're interviewing someone who works in a farm, wear some rugged
clothes and a pair of jeans.
Try to arrange for the interview to be done at the person’s
work place. Not only will it make the person more comfortable, because
they are in their natural surroundings, you may also witness scenes or
overhear conversations that will add color and drama to your story.
2. Build rapport:
Chit-chat with the person or ask general questions first. Don't don’t
on the tape recorder and start taking notes immediately. That would put
the interviewee immediately on the defensive. Try to keep the interview
somewhat (though not overly) informal. This will make the interviewee
more comfortable with you.
It really helps if you know the subject matter well and can challenge
the interviewee when he makes a comment that deserves scrutiny. Many
writers cannot do this because they are not equipped to question
anything the interviewee says. As long as you are not adversarial about
it, the interviewee should appreciate the fact that you know your stuff
and respect you more for it. This is also a way to build rapport.
3. Have a conversation:
Avoid asking closed-ended questions that allows the interviewee to
answer with a “yes” or “no”. Instead, ask open-ended questions that
involve the “hows” and the “whys” of something. These kinds of
questions will elicit longer, more complete responses. Sometimes a
simple “What makes you say that?” or “Could you please tell me why you
feel that way?” will do the trick.
When your interviewee starts talking – even if it’s on some matter
that’s unrelated to the topic you are pursuing – show genuine interest
in their stories. It’s good to have a list of questions in advance, but
don't be hung up about them. If the source says something unexpected or
controversial, be prepared to follow up on that new topic.
That’s how a
conversation runs and that’s how your interview should be like too. Who
knows, it could lead to a new and even better angle than what you had
planned. Of course, if it ends up going nowhere, you can always return
to the original topic later on in the interview.
4. Ask if you don’t understand:
Even if you’ve done a prodigious amount of research it’s not possible
to know as much about the subject as the person you are interviewing.
So, don't be afraid to seek clarification if you don’t understand what
the interviewee just said. You can do this by saying: “So what you're
saying is ...” or “Let’s see if I’ve gotten this right…” Or simply:
“Can you give me some examples?”
Too many writers simply take what is said and incorporate it into their
stories, verbatim – even if they don’t understand a word of what was
said. That’s a lousy practice. If you can’t understand what he just
said, there’s no way your readers will be able to.
5. Save the tough questions for last:
Unless you're in a time-pressure situation, don't ask the tough
questions at the start. For example, never lead off with hardball
questions like “Did you really embezzle all that money?” That’s a
conversation killer if there ever was one.
Get the basics – the easy, safe, neutral stuff – out the way before you
ask the controversial questions. At that point, though, don't be afraid
to ask critical questions. Just make sure you do so with respect. If
you receive a harsh reaction, don't react in kind. Instead, explain
what you're doing and why you have to ask the questions you’re asking.