My brownies are kind of famous. When people ask for my recipe, I laugh and tell them I use a box mix. Then I let them in on my secret: I literally count out the suggested 50 strokes when mixing, instead of stopping when the batter looks well stirred. This trick ensures a perfectly gooey texture.
Successful recipes—even those on a box—work because they’re tried and true. This principle has proven true in my writing, too. When someone I interview says, “That’s a great question!” they might as well have complimented my brownies. I grin and think: Nailed it! Strong interviews are the backbone of news reports, profiles, and feature articles, but the same skills are useful when researching for a novel and other types of stories.
Here’s my recipe for the perfect interview.
1. Gather everything you need.
First, set up the interview immediately. You may have a few weeks until deadline, but that doesn’t mean your subject is available throughout that timeframe. Leave room for last-minute rescheduling and follow-up questions. When scheduling the interview, mention how much time you anticipate needing (always overestimating in case the conversation runs long). Be clear about the purpose of the interview but do not send your questions in advance. Your subject should be able to think about the topic without rehearsing responses. Before you call or meet with the person you’re interviewing, do your research. Collecting biographical information ahead of time (personal and company websites are a good place to start) eliminates the need for unnecessary questions—and the risk of annoying your interviewee. Identify secondary sources of information, such as other people you can talk to. If your story is about a conflict or controversial topic, explore both sides of the issue.
2. Write every question you can think of. Then write some more.
Go through your questions and prioritize those pertaining to your topic. Ask off-topic questions only if they may shed light on the interviewee’s personality and add interest to the story. Ask a couple of these at the beginning and, if there’s time left over, at the end. Avoid questions that diverge from the topic with no purpose. Mine for interesting anecdotes and not only dry facts.
3. Be punctual. Be pleasant. Be professional.
Show up for the interview or make the phone call when you said you would. Be friendly but not overly familiar, and address the interviewee respectfully regardless of your personal views. If your subject says something you disagree with, don’t debate. Your job is to record what is being said, not to assert your own opinions. Be empathetic but not too chatty when reacting to your subject’s comments. Don’t make assumptions about the topic or the interviewee. Resist the temptation to write the story in your head before the interview is done. If there is a pause in the conversation, allow a few seconds of silence before jumping in with your next question. Some of the best quotes come after such pauses because the interviewee was processing what he or she just said.
4. Always end with “Is there anything I didn’t ask but you want to tell me about?”
. . . or some variation of this question. Nine times out of ten, I get excellent quotes when I ask this, especially if my interviewee is passionate about the topic. A freelancer I know even asks if the other person wants to ask her a question. This could give you additional clues on how to move your story forward.
5. Review your notes right away and follow up on anything that’s unclear.
Do this while the conversation is still fresh in both your minds. Don’t try to decipher your notes or guess what was meant. It’s better to ask than to publish something inaccurate or misleading.
Sorry, wrong recipe!