Chicago — For writers and journalists, the interviews we conduct are as important as the copy we turn in. A poor interview not only spells trouble for the writing process but can leave a piece feeling dry and lifeless while leaving readers with more questions than answers.
You’d think it’d be as simple as going one by one down your list of questions, asking your subject the next one as soon as they answer the last. If you’ve ever interviewed anyone, you know this approach doesn’t always work. Some interview subjects don’t answer questions directly while others might offer a response that needs to be fleshed out. If you’re not careful, you’ll walk away from the talk without the information you need to write a good piece or worse - miss your deadline, a writer's nightmare.
Here are some important ways I try to get the most out of my interviews and set myself up for success during the writing process.
Know what you need
Before you go into your interviews, write down the points you need your subject to address. It’s helpful to write down questions related to those topics too but try to view them as gateways to things you might not have planned for. By that I mean, be open to following up on your interviewees responses instead of quickly moving onto the next topic. Deliberate over their answers like you would if you were talking to a friend. If you do that over time with a lot of different people, you’ll naturally think of other interesting follow up questions. Those will either give you more important information, anecdotes or simply provide more insight into the person you’re speaking with.
Know who you're talking to
Go into your conversations having done as much research on the person you’re going to speak with as possible. Sometimes that’s just a browse on a LinkedIn page, a personal website or a conversation with someone who referred you to that interview subject.
Not all interview situations allow for you to know a lot about the person you’re interviewing beforehand but I think the idea at the core of that consideration can transcend any conversation one might find themselves in. At the end of the day, we’re telling stories about people and to do that well, we need to understand the people we’re sitting down with.
That’s why, in most situations, I believe that it’s important to ask questions about a person's background and their journeys through life to better inform the articles you’re including them in. It can go a long way in humanizing them and helping them feel more comfortable during your conversation. Even if you don’t use all the information they told you, those details can make an article feel alive in a way that readers can feel and resonate with.
Noah Johnson (he/him/his) is a Chicago-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @noahwritestoo.