A Journalist’s Guide to Successfully Interviewing Anybody

Interviews are one of the many perks that come with your title in the media industry. They function as your excuse to pick a stranger’s brain and speak with them as if you’ve been friends for years.

But fostering the ideal, conversational-yet-informative interview is difficult — especially if you’re new to the process.

Interviews are one of the many perks that come with your title in the media industry. They function as your excuse to pick a stranger’s brain and speak with them as if you’ve been friends for years.

But fostering the ideal, conversational-yet-informative interview is difficult — especially if you’re new to the process.

How to Prepare For an Interview

Reflect On Why You’re Doing the Interview

Aside from “it’s my job” or “it’s for an assignment,” reflect on why you’re interviewing this person in the first place. What are you hoping to get from it?

Are you trying to gain expert-insight on a topic? Are you asking them about something they’ve recently published or created? What do you want to learn about this individual or their work?

Knowing the why behind your interview keeps your questions focused and concise.

Do Your Research

Whip out magnifying glass and put on your sleuth’s hat: it’s time to do a little digging.

Before writing up your interview questions, do a little background research on your interviewee. What can you find about them on their website and social media? Have they done other interviews — and if so, what have other interviewers asked them?

This is a necessary part of the process for many obvious reasons:

  1. You’ll gather a better sense of who the person is and what they’re like
  2. You can tailor your interview questions to make them a bit more personalized
  3. You’ll probably be inspired to ask them questions you would’ve never otherwise thought to ask
  4. You can avoid asking the interviewee questions they’ve already answered a hundred times

Make Sure Your Questions Flow

As a rule of thumb, start with the easy questions and build your way up to the tougher topics. This helps the interviewee get into the interview mindset as you’re asking them questions.

Having a flow to your questions will also help when you’re writing up the article later. The way your discussion progresses should make sense. If your questions are all over the place, your article will be, too.

Have the Right Equipment

The ability to record audio straight to your phone or computer is a beautiful luxury of living in the 21st century.

Nevertheless, there are still a few protocols that can improve the quality of your interview audio. Even if you’re only recording the interview to transcribe it later, clear audio makes the process so much easier.

Personally, I do most of my interviews over the phone, so I simply record my phone speaker through my laptop microphone. It’s doesn’t always produce the clearest audio, but it gets the job done for me.

When I speak with the interviewee through my computer, I use the Soundflower plug-in so I can wear headphones and record my computer’s internal audio.

Note: Soundflower records your computer’s internal audio, so it’ll only pick up what the interviewee is saying. I highly recommend doing another audio recording through your microphone so you can accurately capture both halves of the conservation.

You may also find it helpful to keep a pen and notepad nearby to make notes for yourself to glance over later.

Send the Interviewee Your Questions in Advanced

Not everyone will agree with this step, but I find it very helpful to send the interviewee my questions in advanced.

The heads up helps the interview flow as smoothly as possible. They’re already prepared for what you’re going to ask them, so there’ll be less pauses, “ums,” “ahs,” “can we come back to that question later,” and more direct answers.

This is also helpful in making sure the interviewee is comfortable with everything you’re about to ask them. If one of your questions is too personal, they have the chance to tell you beforehand.

Keep a Beverage Nearby

Whether it’s coffee, tea, or good ol’ water, keep it nearby. Nobody enjoys having a dry mouth during an interview, or any conversation, for that matter.

Go to the Bathroom Before the Interview

I know it seems silly, but it needs to be said! Get your business out of the way before the interview.

You don’t want to find yourself distracted by the urge to urinate while you’re speaking to them. And you certainly don’t want to stop mid-interview for a bathroom break, either.

How to Be a Great Interviewer

Make Small Talk Before Diving into the Questions

Of course, there are situations where this isn’t always possible, like if the interviewee has made it very clear they only have 15 or 30 minutes to speak with you.

But most of the time, you can spare a minute or two for some lighthearted conversation before jumping right into the questions.

It may not seem like it, but simply asking the interviewee how they’re doing goes a long way in making them feel comfortable before you start interrogating them.

Small talk humanizes the conversation and gives you a brief second to get acquainted with each other first. Bonus points if you manage to make them laugh a little.

Ask For Permission to Record the Interview

This is more of a legal buffer than anything else. The laws vary by state, but in some places it’s illegal to record a phone call without receiving consent from both parties, according to Justia.

While it’s unlikely the interviewee will take up an issue with the recording, just let them know you’re recording the conversation first. It’s a lot easier to ask, “Is it okay if I record this interview for transcribing purposes?” than it is to deal with a legal dispute down the road.

Speak Slowly and Clearly

Don’t rush through your questions; take your time as you read them aloud. Make sure you remember to annunciate and read as if you’re speaking them in conversation. It’s more engaging and genuine than reading the questions in a completely monotone voice.

Don’t Be Afraid of Silence

Take a pause before moving on to the next question. If your interviewee has more to say on the topic, they’ll fill the silence.

Bolting to your next topic makes the interview feel rushed. It could also give the impression that you’re not really interested in what the interviewee is saying.

Be Attentive and Ask Follow Up Questions

It’s time to put your listening skills to the test. Be attentive and keep an ear out for anything interesting that you didn’t find out about them while doing your research. This creates the perfect opportunity for you to ask more personalized follow-up questions.

Be Flexible and Conversational

The most effective way to make your interviewee feel comfortable is to respond in a conversational tone from time to time.

You don’t always have to ask a follow-up question in order to get the interviewee to give a deeper answer to what you’re asking. Reply to them like you’re speaking with a friend and comment on some of their answers.

Although it’s an interview, you don’t have to be completely faceless, either. Sharing your perspective or your related experiences helps form a bond between you and the interviewee. It also invites the opportunity for further discussion from a completely different angle.

Don’t fear the off-topic moments, either. That’s what makes your interview special and unique.

Smooth Out Your Transitions

On the other hand, you’re in charge of directing the conversation. Don’t be afraid to slyly transition back into the heart of your questions if you find the interview is starting to spiral completely off track.

You also don’t have to comment on everything the interviewee answers with. Sometimes your next question is already the perfect follow-up or transition to the next topic.

Throw in Some Flattery

C’mon, who doesn’t want to be complemented? Be nice to your interviewee, sprinkle in some flattery! It shows you’re interested in who they are, their work, and what they’re saying.

Make Them Laugh a Little

This isn’t your stand-up comedy hour, but humor helps us relate to others and their experiences. Don’t mock them or make jokes about their work, but if the opportunity arises to make them laugh, do it!

In Conclusion

Interviews give you the opportunity to be anyone’s best friend for about half an hour. While your goal is to learn more about a person or their work, keeping it conversational can encourage them to be more open during your discussion.

Thus, you want to humanize the interview as much as possible. Even if you’re feeling a bit starstruck, it’s important to remember they’re still a person, too. Speak to them like a person, not a product.

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