5 quick tips to interview like a pro
Interviewing subject matter experts is often the ideal way to get the absolute best material on a given topic. As experts in their field, they know far more than just about anyone—including and especially you, humble copywriter. That’s why preparing for and conducting interviews can be a daunting task. But with just a little planning and a few best practices, you can easily get the best from your interviewees every time.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but taking a few steps beyond simply understanding what your interviewee’s job is goes a long way. First, learn a little about your interviewee’s background—find out who they are, both personally and professionally. Often, this will help in deciding what to ask and how. Second, decide on a theme or topic to guide your piece, and plan your questions along those lines. Even if the topic is something ultimately uninteresting to you, set aside the time to draft questions that show you’ve taken the time to gain some meaningful insight. Finally, make sure you’ve curated plenty of questions—it’s always best to have a surplus.
Never rely solely on handwritten notes. They’re fine to supplement the audio recording when you’re putting everything together after the interview but shouldn’t serve as the only record of what your interviewee said. There’s simply no way you can capture the entire essence of the conversation when you’re focused on quickly writing everything down. Your smartphone works just fine as a recording device, but make sure it’s set to airplane mode! Besides being bad etiquette, an incoming call or text during the interview terminates the voice memo or recorder function, which could spell disaster. Finally, be sure to get your interviewee’s permission before turning your device on.
Ask casual questions first
To get your interviewee comfortable, there’s no better way than first asking a (not overly) personal question. People enjoy talking about themselves, and allowing someone to do so at the top of the interview is the best way to draw them out. Whether the question pertains to your chosen theme or topic is totally your call—the point is to get your interviewee talking comfortably. Anticipating the gist of the response will help you plan your follow-up questions with better precision.
Once the interviewee begins to answer a question, it’s easy to want to start planning your next question. Resist this urge! You’ve already prepared your questions and have them written down in front of you, so there’s no need to overly focus on what’s next. Instead, hone in on what your interviewee is actively saying. This is important because the response may reveal an unexpected angle or line of questioning you hadn’t initially anticipated.
Fear not the awkward silence
Ever pay really close attention to the way seasoned interviewers like NPR’s Terry Gross or “Inside the Actor’s Studio’s” James Lipton talk to their interviewees? When their subjects pause to contemplate the rest of their response or simply stop talking altogether, Gross and Lipton allow that silence to stand for a time. Giving interviewees time to fully form their thoughts or follow a sudden diversion in their train of thought often yields the best stuff. Be patient, and leave room for interviewees to speak at their own pace.
The more you interview people, the easier it gets, and the more confident and proficient you become. So the next time you have to interview a software engineer or public policy expert who may as well be speaking different languages, don’t worry. Prepare, record, listen and you’ll be on your way to interviewer glory in no time.