Hack’s hacks – how to interview someone for a story

If you have been asked to interview someone for a story in a company newsletter, press release, blog or some other web content, it can feel pretty daunting if you haven’t done it before.

In a way it’s a ‘chat’ but crucially with much more purpose and direction than an everyday chinwag over a coffee. This immediately means there’s a different dynamic between you and your interviewee; your subject might be more guarded because they know what they say is going into print. It’s certainly something to be aware of when interviewing someone.

Your aim in any interview, be it for a profile piece or update on what their business has achieved for example, is to ask loads of relevant questions. In return you should be given lots of useful information that you can than craft into a readable and accurate article. It sounds simple, eh?

Even though I’ve interviewed thousands of people for all manner articles over the past 25 years, I still always begin with some basic preparation before speaking to them.

It’s really important to do some research on who you are speaking to as this usually leads to a much better interview. Put in their details and see what comes up on Google, if anything, about them.  There may have been other articles or snippets about them with a hint of an ‘angle’ that you can ask them about. It’s always a good chance to check on their exact job title and other biographical details (when they started at the company, where they previously worked, etc.) too. Don’t worry, they won’t think you’ve been stalking them, but instead know you have done some good background research.

Although you might not be able to dictate if it’s a face-to-face interview or on the phone (or Skype), each have their own advantages and disadvantages. I find it’s always better to meet people in person as you can note their reaction to your questions. But if you’re new to doing interviews, you might not feel so flustered on the phone. If at all possible, try to avoid doing an email interview, where you send over questions for the interviewee to answer. The replies can often appear stilted when they appear in print, plus you won’t be able to ask follow up questions easily.

If the allotted time for the interview is quite limited, it might be tempting to dive straight in and start firing off your planned questions. But I factor in a little preamble first to put both of you at ease. I usually introduce myself again, thank them for agreeing to be interviewed and tell them what the interview is for and when it should appear. I usually add ‘I just need about x minutes to speak to you about…’

In many ways, you as the interviewer are in charge (but in a very unassuming way) and you ‘suggest’ what you want to talk about. So before you start, try and work out a very rough structure (in your head at least) of how the finished article will be ‘nosed’ (a good old journalist’s term for how it will be focused).  Ideally plan a few questions in advance to ask, but don’t stick rigidly to them if the interview turns in a different and more interesting direction.  

I often build up to the main thrust of what I want to specifically talk to the person about with some more general questions at the start. You want to get them ‘warmed up’ a bit first.

Also, even if you have a whole page of questions on your pad you want to ask, remember to let the person speak. Don’t keep interrupting them (ask open questions not ones that will require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply too), or finishing off sentences for them. It’s their voice readers want to hear, not yours.

Often the interviewee can hare off in a direction you don’t want, as what they’re saying is slightly irrelevant to what you want to interview them about. You might have to cleverly reel them back in. You can often do this by drawing them back to the subject you want to talkabout by saying something like ‘I want to talk about that in a minute, but can you just finish telling me about…’

One of the most heart-sinking feelings as a journalist is finishing an interview and knowing your notepad is full of largely unusable waffle. But if you prepare well (by using some of these tips) this shouldn’t happen too often.  

On the other hand, one of the real kicks I still experience is when I’m interviewing someone and they say something really unexpected. Many times I’ve known what they have just said will actually make the headline for the article. It’s a great feeling.

When I was training to be a journalist, I was taught that when you feel you have enough information and quotes, wind up the interview with a quick recap with your subject. Sometimes it’s wise to go over their main points again and say something like ‘Do you think we have covered everything you wanted to talk to me about?’

This is also a good opportunity for you to clarify anything you don’t fully understand. I do lots of interviews with medical experts for health articles, so find it a good chance to make sure I actually understand a new treatment or pioneering technique in layman’s’ terms.

I make sure I have their contact details (or how to contact them via a personal assistant, etc.) You certainly don’t want to bombard the interviewee in the days afterwards with loads more questions. But in my experience, most interviewees are happy to answer the odd additional query.

Again end the interview formally by thanking them for their time and reiterating what will now happen as regards the article.

Now it’s time for you to write it up your interview.

 By Adrian Monti