By Jackie Houchin
[Editor’s Note: Jackie wrote this piece with her journalism work in mind. The tips she offers, however, can be used in interviews related to any type of writing.]
Originally posted June 10, 2010
So many people; so many interesting stories! To pick their brains, pry out their deepest secrets, find out how and why they do what they do, I have to interview them.
There are three main steps (or methods to my madness) in how I interview folks.
Before the interview
I first decide why I want to interview the person, what I hope to learn and what kind of story I want to write. (A lot of this will depend on where I hope to place or sell the story.) Will it be informative, inspiring, promotional, or ... simply someone I personally want to know more about? (Having my own News & Reviews website helps with that last one.)
I contact the person (on the spot or by phone) and set up a time and date. I let them know who I am, who I write for and the general topic I want to cover. Then I do a little research on the person or their specialty, occupation or craft. From my "research" I make a list of questions I want to ask.
I make sure I have a notebook, pens, my camera – and a tape recorder if it's going to be a fact-heavy interview. (Fresh or recharged batteries are a given, of course)
During the interview
I try to establish a conversational mood by commenting on or complimenting (depending on where we meet) our surroundings. I thank them for letting me interview them, tell them what I hope to write about and collect some basic info (correct spelling of name, title if any, etc.)
Then I pick up my notebook and pen, turn on the recorder if using it, and dig right in with the first (and easiest) questions. I never stick strictly to my written questions. If something more interesting (or tantalizing) comes up in their answers, I will follow it like a vein of silver in a Colorado mine. And – confession-time here – sometimes I will ask a question I have no intention of using in my story, just because I want to know.
I mostly listen and add questions as promptings to keep them talking. I smile and encourage them with nods or soft, sympathetic sounds. I haven't mastered the "silence strategy" yet, but I'm told that if you can simply remain silent, your subject will fill it with more info. It's usually too uncomfortable for me to do that.
I take "off the record" seriously and will never write something I'm asked not to. That doesn't mean I don't want to hear it, however. Secret confessions sometimes help me to understand where the person is coming from. I'll take notes, and I might use the revelation to shade or slant the story, but not even that, if it is too sensitive.
If I get behind on my note-taking, I ask them to repeat, slow down, or clarify what they said, especially if I plan to quote it in the story. (Quotes must be 100% accurate!) If they are showing me objects they've collected or made, I will ask if I can photograph them. Always, at the end of the interview, I will get several shots of them with something meaningful to the story. (Projects, pets, creations, gardens, workplace, etc.)
When the interview is winding down, I quickly look over my questions to see if I got everything I need, then I'll ask if they want to tell me anything I didn't ask about. (Great stuff sometimes comes out this way.)
I thank them, give them my card with contact info, and offer to send them a hard copy of the finished story in the paper or magazine (or the link, if it appears in an online venue).
After the Interview
I review my notes (it's easier to decipher my scribbling if I do this right away), underlining key words and looking for a really cool approach to the story. I also try to come up with a good strong opening statement – whether it's dramatic, provocative, humorous, or teasing. What I want is something that will suck in the reader. Wait, that's called a "hook" right?
I also look for facts that I might need clarified or explained. If I find any, I'll do a brief call-back by phone.
And the rule is to never show the interviewee the piece before it is published. But on occasion, under special circumstances, I have been known to do that. (I'm such a softie!)
Jackie Houchin is a freelance writer, book reviewer, and theatre critic. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America and California Writers Club.