the intel on interviewing
Message matters has conducted hundreds of interviews for case studies and articles and to gather quotable quotes to add zest to otherwise dull corporate communication. Our interview subjects are a mixed bunch - scientists, entrepreneurs, composers and academics along with less notable but no less interesting people with stories to tell.
Here's what we've learned about making interviews as productive as possible, and a good experience for interviewee and interviewer alike.
It's a no brainer to find out what you can about the person you plan to interview. If your subject is a leader in their field, they'll expect you've done your homework and respond accordingly.
Regardless of your interview subject, you'll need to be across the topic you're discussing so you can formulate a good series of questions, understand the responses and write a convincing story. A logical sequence beginning with questions that will put the subject at ease is best. Once rapport is established you can be more challenging.
Questions should be simple and direct. Ask one thing at a time without a rambling preamble. That way you'll avoid confusion and answers that fail to illuminate the issues you're investigating.
brief the subject
The next step is a briefing.
Contact your subject by phone, if possible, following up with an email. Make sure you explain:
- who you are working for
- what you will focus on
- how the material from the interview will be used
- how long the interview should take
- whether you'll be sending the draft story back for approval.
Due to the nature of our work, Message matters also advises interview subjects that the stories we write may not always be published. The let down will be minimised if the interview does not surface in the public realm.
go with the flow
While devising a set of questions is a must, recognise that interviews can go in a different direction to the one you had originally planned. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Digressions can produce interesting material, so sit back, relax and listen. You can always shepherd the subject back to key questions later or even handle them by email.
Interviews should be fun for all participating. You're hearing first hand about someone's experiences and thoughts and they have an interested listener. While having fun, an interviewee is much more likely to be candid and offer wonderful insights.
You can't orchestrate fun but you can:
- encourage your subject to schedule an interview time when they're not hemmed in by other commitments, setting the scene for a relaxed exchange
- allow the subject o digress and meander rather than stick to the scripted questions
- show empathy - 'I can see that would be a challenge'
- let the interviewee know that you're interested in what they're saying - 'tell me more about ...'
- reveal something of yourself if it's relevant to the conversation - it can create a bond.
Occasionally you'll have a interview subject who is uninterested and uncooperative. Our advice is not to persist. Things will not magically improve. Politely terminate the interview, suggesting a different time if you absolutely must speak with them or pose questions in a less personal email.
We learned the hard way that the freshness of an interview dissipates quickly and with it the ability to write an engaging story. Writing a month after a particular interview we produced a stiff and soulless piece that pleased neither us nor the interviewee.
Message matters always sends draft stories back to interview subjects with a request to correct factual errors. Getting the facts straight is important not just to story credibility but you own professional standing.
To discourage subjects from assuming editorial control we advise that the final decision on incorporating non-factual corrections is ours alone. Despite this caveat, interviewees sometimes come back with major changes to story tone and length. We usually reiterate the purpose of the project and out word limit but seek to find compromise if the interviewee is obdurate.
Always thank your interview subject for their time and input. Not only is this the decent thing to do when someone has shared their thoughts and feelings, it keep them on side for the future. You might want to reconnect or refer a colleague to them. You'll also ensure the interviewee feels valued - as they should.
Call Message matters on 0414 482 021 for more interviewing intel.