Setting the stage

Whether you’re writing a profile or a novel, strong interviewing practices can ensure a richer story.
By Susan E. Reed | Published: April 1, 2013


2069562_HiResInterviewing is a high art. Whether a series of questions conducted for a primetime television show, the probing of characters by a fiction writer or the one-chance question shouted at a public figure, the results can make or break the final product.

Yet, writers often fear the act of interviewing. It is the moment when you emerge from your privacy and takes a more public stage as a performer yourself. As in theater, the more prepared the actor, the better the performance.

The following steps can increase your chances of conducting a strong interview and delivering a stellar final product.

First, gather as much information about the source, expert or personality as possible. Look at his or her background on LinkedIn, view Twitter feeds and read Facebook postings. Search for your subject on YouTube, and read his or her articles, stories or books. Although the Internet is a fantastic research tool, it often does not contain material published before the mid-1990s. Some people are not on it at all.

Begin jotting down questions that arise as you study the interviewee. Be sure to ask the essential who, what, where, why, when and how questions. Form open-ended questions, not those that can be answered with one word. Select six to 10 final questions and arrange them from the easiest to the most difficult. It will be less painful to ask the toughest questions by prefacing them with, “Let me play devil’s advocate” or “Your critics say.”

Think about where you would like to conduct the interview. If you are writing a profile, planning to model a character after or doing a TV story on a person, observing him or her in action will be essential to the story.

If the story is about fishing, ask to go along. Breathe the same air as your interviewee, take note of the sea at dawn, watch how he or she works the lines. Jot down the details. This will form the color and texture of your writing.

When you arrive, put the interviewee at ease by being friendly and professional. Introduce yourself, give the person your card and restate the purpose of the interview. Ask the person to verify the spelling of his or her name and title, and put the information at the top of your notes. It is essential to bring a notebook, tablet or a laptop with you to the interview. A tape recorder is also useful (but be sure to ask permission). If the interviewee slows down his or her responses waiting for you to type or write, or simply stares at the notebook or your laptop, reconnect by looking up, jotting down a few words and noting the number on the counter of the tape recorder. After the interview, you can go back to the counter and take down the quote verbatim. Periodically glance at the recorder to make sure it is still operating.

Perhaps the most interesting questions you will ask will deal with motivation. Why does the interviewee do what he or she does? What early experiences propelled him or her to act? What does he or she want? These questions can be asked of fictional characters as well as corporate executives. Most of us are driven by conscious and unconscious motives. Uncovering motive will help a writer structure the final story and make his or her characters – both real and imagined – far more compelling. Understanding human behavior from the inside out adds richness and insight to the writing, which is the entire purpose of the interview.

Journalist Susan E. Reed interviewed more than 300 people for her book The Diversity Index: The Alarming Truth about Diversity in Corporate America…and What Can Be Done about It. She has also written for The New York Times, Washington Post, American Prospectand Financial Times Deutschland.

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  • Heather Villa

    Thank you for this helpful article.

    I get butterflies before I interview someone, but I know it’s up to me to help create a relaxed dialogue.

    Sometimes the interview process allows writers to visit places we wouldn’t be “allowed” to visit on an ordinary day. And with that comes a responsibility.