One awesome interview can make all the difference between staring at a blank screen willing inspiration to come, and the words flowing. Here’s how to channel Andrew Denton with your interview technique.
In any given week, I will be writing about 20 different things. Some quite complex. Some quite random. Some I may have to look up just to understand the client’s brief. I didn’t study private debt investing, genetic cancer research, sustainability frameworks or agile transformation processes at university. But I do know how to do just enough research to ask the right questions – and to make any interview more enjoyable for everyone.
With thousands of phone, Zoom and in-real-life expert interviews behind me, here’s the seven things I always do.
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare
Early in my writing career, I was asked to rescue a project for a big insurer. The original writer had interviewed dozens of senior leaders with absolutely zero preparation. Either he believed spontaneity would create a better outcome, or he was plain lazy. Listening to the recordings, I can tell you it was a mess. A waste of time for those experts, and very little for me to work with to turn the project around.
While I have been known to wing it when a hard-to-nab expert can only talk right now, I prefer to be ready with pre-prepared questions for two reasons.
Firstly, it shows respect. Sending questions in advance sets expectations, and gives them time to think about their answers (if they want). Secondly, it forces me to work out what I do know, what I don’t know, and focus that precious time on filling the gaps. As the writer, I need to steer the interview ship to the story angle I am looking for.
Those questions are my map, helping me keep the conversation on course.
2. Build trust quickly
Thanks to his lack of insight on the interviewees, the under-prepared writer lost the confidence of his experts fast. And it gave him a lower chance of getting the really juicy stuff that would bring his writing to life.
So it helps to know a bit about your interviewee and their subject matter. Looking them in the eye can also build trust – which is why we love interviewing on Zoom. It feels weird, but over-exaggerating your facial expressions on screen can help keep a positive flow going – show you are nodding along.
It’s also important to set expectations at the start. Let them know if you’re recording the call, when they can expect to see a draft and how their insights will be used.
If they feel comfortable they’re in safe hands, you’ll get everything you need and more.
3. Listen carefully – and follow up
Once you set the scene, let your interviewees do all the talking. Don’t be afraid of a silent pause. Let them fill it. You’ll need to linger in still waters to make sure you hook and reel in the insights you need.
For example, experts can use overly-technical language. You’re going to need to unpack that for your audience – so get them to do the hard work for you.
Here’s a few follow-up questions you can adapt on the go:
1. That’s really interesting – can you tell us what that meant to you personally/ to the organisation?
2. When you say <abstract phrase or jargon>, what do you mean by that?
3. Can you give me an example of what that might look like?
4. What do you hope the future impact of <technical thing> could look like? How would it affect people in <industry/region>?
4. Ask for specific examples
We’re hard-wired to respond to stories about people – not dry data. And interviews are a goldmine for stories, so make sure you keep asking for scenarios or examples.
Think about your audience and what they might care about, and ask for specific examples of what this might mean for them. If it doesn’t yet exist, ask the expert to imagine the future scenario.
5. Reframe great insights
Sometimes you get the bare bones of a great quote, but it gets a bit lost in all the waffle and side-tracking. And you want to make sure you haven’t misunderstood it – so just repeat it back the way you want to write it and make sure your subject agrees. 99% of the time they will then build on this and make it even better.
6. Record the call (and take notes just in case)
Zoom interviews also make it very easy to record the call, and sync to Otter for automated transcribing. If you’re interviewing on your phone, use a voice recording app or an old school voice recorder with a two-way microphone. Just make sure you ask permission before recording.
Mishaps can happen: cloud recordings go AWOL, the microphone was in the wrong place. So take rough notes too – it will help you stay focused on the conversation.
7. Re-cut quotes until they shine
We always allow the interviewee to approve their quotes in context before publishing, and that gives us the creative freedom to make sure their insights work hard to nail our angle. Conversations tend to meander, so don’t be afraid to bolt together a few sentences for that ideal pull-quote. I can guarantee every subject thinks they actually did say it like that – and will appreciate how intelligent you made them sound.
At the end of the day our interviewees are the hero of the story – they give us everything we need to write at our best. Because all the Googling in the world won’t get us the same level of insight and personal connection that a 30-minute chat with someone who cares deeply about this topic offers. It’s just about having the tools to make their words and insights shine bright.
So go forth with these tips and get that great interview.
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