At the moment, I am working on a piece that is not really going anywhere. My problem of course, is not lack of motivation, or laziness, but the fact that every interview I have conducted has just not panned out. No quotes have been right enough to make a good article idea a great one, not to mention an article that is worth reading in its entirety.
So what’s the big deal with the interview? Well, considering its results become the spice of the story, its fair to say that an interview can make or break your piece. An interview with an expert/professional on your chosen topic will add credibility to your argument/discussion, providing you with a backdrop to explore issues further and to of course branch out into other bits of evidence that will solidify any claims that you are making. This is because your interview with an expert will always present you with trends or certain findings that you might then find in case studies in everyday life, giving your piece a personal touch that will actually resonate with your readers – because they see that people experiencing symptom X and feeling Y actually walk about in society, or whatever. That said, your case studies do not always have to support what the expert or study says – and that’s all the beauty of writing/journalism.
As such, it is important to ensure your interviews are the best that they can possibly be (especially so you don’t end up in my sort of pickle). Some of my own tips for interviewing include:
- The most important thing to remember is that, even if it takes you a long time to get in touch, it is best to interview the best available person for the job. There’s no point in interviewing a dietician who specialises in the eating habits of newly-arrived migrants if you’re writing an article for Girlfriend mag on eating disorders prevalent among girls aged 13-17. This is something which is currently plaguing me now, because I just so happened to pick an essential-to-know topic, but which is limited in scope and not necessarily a matter of interest. I have held three interviews to date and none seem right – just because these people are experts in their field, doesn’t mean they are passionate about it. Said passion always brings a bit of flavour to the interview and thus your story. So even if you have to search far and wide, I suggest you do it [ pending time constraints of course].
- Always prepare yourself before conducting the interview. Read up on the issue and familiarise yourself with matters of research, other case studies or people who have experienced it in some way or another. If you’re interviewing an expert, read up on their background, the studies they have conducted to bring them to this point of expertise, and check out where and how they have been quoted before.
- Arm yourself with a load of questions. More than you think you will have time to ask, because inevitably, they might answer something as they are going along anyway. That said, it’s also very likely that you’ll come up with more questions as they are responding to original ones, so ask those too. Go over your questions a few times before you conduct the interview as well – just to make sure some don’t sound similar to others etc.
- Give them a chance to talk. Always give them time to muse over the questions and answers, and always ask if they’d like to add anything before you leave.
- Be polite and professional. They are not your best mate, they do not owe you anything, and you are not on a criminal investigation. A little bit of R-E-S-P-E-C-T always goes a loooong way.
- Always double-check the name, spelling and title of the person you are interviewing. You can spell really basic names in a variety of ways, and it’s not cool crediting someone from the School of Technology in Art at the University of Sydney, when in fact they are from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Technology, Sydney. (I just made these schools and faculties up BTW).
- Get them to elaborate. Don’t accept yes or no answers – ask hows and whys. Better yet, stick to open-ended questions and you’ll have more room to move, not to mention the chance to venture off on tangents that might give you a better angle from which to write with.
- If you’re interviewing for a bio sort of piece, always take into account a person’s gestures, surroundings, clothes. Look at where their attention is focused. If you’re at their home/office, describe it. Make little notes about their belongings and assess them later. If you’re in a park, observe how they behave around birds or children. In a restaurant? Their comments on the menu, or better yet what they order and how (are they friendly?) will tell you a lot. Not to mention whether or not they leave a tip!
- Tools are just as important as questions. If it’s an in-person interview, have your phone, their contact details and the corrent instructions as to the meeting point on hand. Give them your phone number prior. Have your recording device ready, plus extra batteries. Have a spare pen/extra pencils to avoid any easy-to-arise issues.
- Interviewing over the phone? The same rules as above apply. And this might sound stupid, but make sure you have a sound connection, and do not eat while you are doing it.
- Via email? The thing that sucks about email interviews is that you can’t branch the interview off into a certain direction. This only happens in person. Plus via email, a person always has the opportunity to edit rtheir responses. It is so much better when they are tumbling out. Though that said, email interviews are already transribed. Easy option, but not exactly the most fruitful.
- Don’t get too caught up in the business. In Release the Hounds: A guide to research for journalists and writers (Christine Fogg, Allen & Unwin), Roger Patching says that you should never leave an interview with an unanswered question, that you should always listen to what you are being told instead of just asking away, and present all sides (essential objective of all good journalism, of course). Patching also advises against asking double-barelled questions, as these can often be confusing.
I think (and hope) that I have just about covered all bases – or ones that have come about in my short term experience.