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Ten Steps to Successful Interviewing
I recently listened to an interview with Mick Jagger after he received a Golden Globe Award for his song "Old Habits Die Hard," performed for the "Alfie" soundtrack. Jagger quickly became bored with questions like, "Will you party after the awards tonight?" and "Who are you excited to see here?" After four questions, a disgusted Jagger tossed down his microphone and left.
What a missed opportunity for the young reporter! Better questions might have delved into the fact that, for the first time in his career, a 63-year-old who still models the teen-screaming image of a hard rock and roller was asked to create music for a movie.
The same reporter spoke with Hilary Swank, star of Clint Eastwood's film "Million Dollar Baby." He skipped over Swank's role and award-winning success to ask, "What was it like to work with Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman?" Questions that dealt with her role in a film about women in boxing would have struck a more strident chord with viewers. How did you prepare for this film? Tell us about the women boxers you trained with. How long have women been boxing as a professional sport? Do you see this becoming a bigger trend? Even questions such as, did you get hurt at all making this film, or, were any of the punches real, would have made for a more interesting interview. At least this line of questioning would have dealt with the individual herself and her accomplishment.
Interviewing can be a scary part of the writing process. My first interviews included a tape recorder that I constantly checked to be sure it was running and notebooks filled with quickly scratched sentences that were designed more by the subject, than by me. Tip: If it's not quotable, just jot notes and craft your own sentences later. These ten tips should help you avoid common mistakes and generate successful interviews:
1. Relax. There is no need to psyche yourself out or sweat off your deodorant. An interview is simply a talk with someone on a specific topic. While you listen, you will jot down pertinent details and interesting quotes.
Tip: I place a capital "Q" in the margin, so I can quickly find quotes when I go to write the story. Underlining, placing nearby stars or writing brief notes to yourself in the margin work just as well.
2. Prepare. Do your research before interviewing your subject. Check back copies of newspapers and pull up an Internet search on your subject or topic so you will be informed and have a few formulated questions in mind.
Tip: Write initial questions down to avoid getting off-track in the conversation and to guarantee that you get the information needed for a great article.
3. Make an appointment. This seems obvious, but many beginning writers make the mistake of just "dropping in" on a subject, either at home or a place of work.
Tip: "Baby-sit" your interviewees to avoid timeline disasters and missed appointments. It is a good idea to put in a reminder call at least an hour before the scheduled time.
4. Prime the subject. Reveal that you have done your homework. This shows professionalism and gives you a starting point for the interview.
Example: "Mrs. Landon, I understand you were instrumental in opening the senior center and now want to see something similar built for local teenagers. What do you envision for this project?"
5. Move forward from the basics. Definitely include the who, what, where, when, why and how questions, then be sure to move forward with open-ended questions that invite a lengthy response. Encourage anecdotes and opinions with questions such as, "How did you react?" and "Why do you feel this is important?"
Tip: Stay away from questions that allow one-word answers.
6. Dig for information. Your subject may have an agenda or a rehearsed line of answers. Be sure to write what you need, which often varies from the direction your subject will want to take.
Tip: This is where your initial research from Step 2 will prove helpful.
7. Remain neutral. Remember, you are the reporter. Neither friend nor client, it is important to accept all information professionally, and check it out afterwards. Do not be tempted to automatically believe, support or be swayed by the subject or topic. You want to write, not hype.
Tip: In all interviews it is important that you bring "your grain of salt." In other words, maintain a healthy amount of skepticism so that you don't become a follower rather than a reporter.
8. Note nonverbal aspects. Make careful observations of your subject and his/her surroundings. Note gestures, facial expressions, clothing and the manner in which they talk to you. Are they excited, stiff, educated, thoughtful?
Tip: Write down artifacts that stick out to you such as family photos, awards, light/dark, special qualities, and so forth, and how they relate or do not relate to your subject.
9. Never promise a preview. You lose control of the article when you allow the subject to preview your draft. Do your own editing and leave any revisions to the editor.
Tip: I overcome this pitfall by stating that it is not common practice for our publication to allow previews, however, upon publication, I can get my interviewee a couple free tear-sheets. This tactic tends to soothe any anxiety and the subject anticipates receiving his/her free copies.
10. End the interview. It takes discipline, but being respectful of your source's time and closing the interview promptly ensures you have an open door later for additional interviews or follow-up information. If you say you only need half an hour, close your notebook after 28 minutes and begin your "thank you for your time" exit.
Tip: Be sure to get a phone number in case you need to firm up any details later.
Tama Westman writes the Off the Page column for Write From Home. As a correspondent and columnist, she publishes news articles, feature stories and her column, Cuppa Thoughts, regularly with her local paper, the Chaska Herald. She has served as the editor of the award-winning literary magazine, Haute Dish. Her articles appear in several local newspapers and, nationally in The Gathering and Light & Life Magazine.
She teaches creative writing and poetry classes with the AHEAD program (Achieving Higher Education and Dreams) at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, MN, mentors high school journalism students, and teaches beginning and intermediate writers at conferences throughout the country. Married with two grown children, she keeps her balance with a cup of tea taken in the afternoon in her English garden. Further samples of her writing can be viewed on her Web site, http://www.tamawestman.com feel free to e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org