1. Determine your bottom-line
Before conducting an interview, get crystal clear about what you want and why. Without this understanding, your interview is like a car rolling along without a driver. It may have momentum, but it doesn’t have direction. Once you’ve identified your bottom line—the information you have to walk away with in order to write your piece—you and your subject are free to meander conversational back roads.
2. Heed the agenda
Every interview follows two agendas—yours and your subject’s. Just as you come into the session with a set of interests, needs, and goals, so, too, does the person you’re interviewing. He or she is talking to you for a reason; there is something specific he or she wants. The greater your ability to pinpoint these motivations, the greater the depth and enjoyment of your interview.
3. Be prepared
Interviewers, like Boy Scouts, must come prepared. That means bringing extra pens, pads, and tape recorder batteries, as well as an extension cord, should a nearby outlet be unavailable. It also means dressing the part (e.g., wearing a suit if you’re going to interview a CEO in his or her office, or donning a pair of hiking boots if you’re going to interview a naturalist while climbing a mountain). And it means anticipating distractions that may disrupt an interview’s flow or seriously undermine your tape recording efforts (e.g., ringing telephones, heavy traffic, kids and dogs bounding into the room).
4. Do your homework
Just as reinventing the wheel is a waste of time, so too is asking subjects to go over information interviewers should have coming in to the session. Be more respectful—do your homework. Impress them with your resourcefulness. At the very least, know their “name, rank, and serial number.” Read up about them or their field or issue. You’re there for specific information, after all, not a tutorial; don’t expect them to trudge over old ground. Your goal should be to break new ground, and you do this by doing your homework.
5. Create a balance
Interviewers are like dancing partners. Sometimes they lead, sometimes they follow. The key is to dance in synch, to go with the flow, yet direct it. As mentioned, knowing your bottom line is critical. But so too is the willingness to whirl off in a new direction. True, there’s a risk: It might be a complete waste of time. But it also may open you to new steps and insights, not to mention great anecdotes and quotes.
6. Overcome objections
Not everyone wants to talk—at least about everything. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get your interview subjects to overcome their objections and answer difficult questions. Many individuals, in fact, are longing to do just that—if they feel understood, respected, and safe. As an interviewer, it is your job (consider it your honor) to create an environment of trust. The way you frame your questions is key here, but so too are active listening and good eye contact and body language. Words alone will not draw a subject forth.
8. Don’t expect to be loved
Although interviews are conducted one-on-one, not all are personal. And even those that are more personal are not necessarily touchy-feely. That’s okay. It’s to be expected. And it’s something you need to get used to. The folks you interview don’t have to love you; heck, they don’t even have like you. They just have to give you information. Remember—the successful interview is the one from which you gain what you needed.
9. Debrief immediately
It’s not enough to take notes during an interview. It’s critical that you also jot down your thoughts as soon as an interview is over. Consider it a debriefing session with yourself, an opportunity to note your impressions, create a next-steps list, and develop a game plan for what comes next. Hit while the iron is hot, while the thoughts are still fresh in your mind. The moment or two it takes can save you literally hours later on.
10. Follow up
When someone grants you an interview, they are doing you a favor. The very least you can do is say thanks—not only at the time of the interview but following it. You show your thanks by dropping them a note, forwarding information you may have talked about when you met, or sending them a copy of your article. Saying thanks in these and other ways, will make your subjects feel good, appreciated. And subjects that feel good and appreciated will happily agree to be interviewed again.
Beth Mende Conny is the founder and president of WriteDirections.com. She has published more than four dozen books and collections, and helps individuals and businesses bring their projects to publication. She can be contacted at Beth@WriteDirections.com.