By Rachel J. Trotter
I started interviewing people over 20 years ago when I conducted my first interview as fledgling college newspaper reporter. I was nervous. I was in the dark. I didn’t know what to expect. Sure, there were textbooks to give me clues and my professors weren’t too shabby either, but I have learned since that time that sometimes you just have to dig in and learn some things on your own.
I came with a list of questions written out and gave myself about three lines per question on lined paper college ruled paper. I also had an old, Sony Walkman recorder that I used to record the interview too – although the interview ended up being over the phone, so that was a big fail! As I got into the interview I quickly realized my three lines per question was nearly enough and I had to move back and forth between pages to jot down my notes and I became quickly confused. This all may seem like a bit of a disaster, but I somehow fleshed out a decent story and also came to find as I interviewed the man, that he was the president of Zion’s Bank (a huge bank in our state at the time) and one of the biggest donors and philanthropists to my university and our local community at that time. When I realize
d it as I was interviewing him I kind of wanted to give my editor a swift kick for not making me aware of this. But as I’ve gotten older in my interviewing life, I realized it wasn’t my editor who was to blame – it was me. I should have researched who I was interviewing and gotten to know a little of what they could share with me. Find out some details of their life before you start – not only will it make your interview easier, but also it lets the person you’re interviewing know you are investing in them and care about what you are doing.
This is true for whomever you interview – even if it’s your mom. In an interview you don’t always know what a person is going to tell you and oftentimes (if you’re lucky) an interview will take a twist you don’t expect. This is when the fun begins! It’s important to have a few stock questions written down before you start your interview – things you must know about the person, event or thing you plan to write about – but the best kind of information comes when an interview takes a turn and people start to tell you their feelings. That’s when the art of the interview takes over. If you can draw out feelings, let’s be honest – it’s pure gold. Often when I ask a question that brings up an emotion I quickly ask – “How did that make you feel?” And don’t be afraid to ask it. Asking people’s feelings rarely ends with a one-word answer, and it’s another way to develop a closer relationship with your interviewee. (You never want a one-word answer in an interview.) Another tip to keep your interviewee going is to quickly throw in – “What happened next?” to keep things flowing.
I try to never get caught up in what I think I needed to know at the beginning. It’s okay to go back and ask those questions, but it’s also easy to send an email to follow up or even set up another interview. You don’t want to go too long, because the interview can get boring and both parties may feel the urgency to “hurry up and get it done” when there is really so much more to be said.
Also it’s wise to let the subject be in charge – do they want to do it at their home? Do it. Do they want to do it over the phone? Oblige to get things started. For story writing purposes you will want to do an in-person interview at some point, but some people need to be in their safety zone at first. This can also work with an email interview. Do what it takes to break the ice and create trust. People often me tell me, “Don’t make me sound stupid.” And let me just say, unless it’s an elected official in a meeting, (haha) people rarely sound stupid, because they are often talking about something that evokes passion – especially if it’s storytelling about their own life or someone they love.
Another quick tip is to leave the recorder on or your notebook out until you get out the door. It is funny, but magic often happens in the very last moments so remain prepared to capture it.
In the future we will discuss bigger mechanics of the interview process, but the biggest key for me has always been to follow my instincts an let the questions as your instincts and your subject’s instincts guide you.