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My First Experience Interviewing A Source.

October 20, 2008

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.  You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror.  I can take the next thing that comes along.”…You must do the thing you think you cannot do. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

For those of you who have read my previous posts, you will recall that I said I had managed to land some steady assignments with a local newspaper.  I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to get some published clips to my name.  There was a catch, of course.  I’d have to learn how to interview sources, and this was something I was just a little bit (okay, a lot) nervous about.

 

I’m my own worst critic, as I’m sure most writers and creative thinkers are.  I had to overcome a lot of self-doubt and spine-tingling fear when I picked up the telephone to dial one of the main sources for my first story.  In fact, I think I hung up at least three times before I finally let it ring through.  I kept assuming my first attempts to interview a subject would result in: epic fail.  But I was wrong.

 

Instead, I ended up on the line with one of the most interesting individuals I’ve ever exchanged words with.  He wasn’t the red-eyed, horned demon I was imagining.  He didn’t try to chase me back into freelance hibernation, guffaw at my questions, or challenge me with three-word responses.  He was open, honest, giving, and appreciative.  Even though he wasn’t my primary source for the article, I actually got more valuable information and quotes from him in the end.  As a result, I was able to craft the article into something I didn’t imagine it could become.

 

Here’s a few things I learned about interviewing subjects through my own experience:

  1. Act confident.  Even if you’re shaking like Little Red Riding Hood in her knickers, pretend you’re confident.  Pretending is often enough.  Wear the cloak of confidence and not only will you project this onto your interview source, but you’ll also begin to feel more confident yourself.
  2. Be prepared, but not too prepared.  Being prepared is part of what gives confidence.  By having a list of questions I wanted to ask my interview source rather than winging it, I felt more comfortable because I had a roadmap of where the interview was going.  But don’t be too prepared!  I skipped some questions if my interview source provided them as extensions of other responses rather than wasting time being redundant.  I also came up with a few extra questions that were jump-offs from something intriguing he mentioned that I hadn’t thought to cover or probe further with initially.
  3. Imagine it as a chat or discussion, not an interview.  I went into the interview with the frame of mind that it was not an interview.  I know, you’re like – what kind of dribble are you feeding me?  If you use the word “interview” with your source, they immediately thing formal and boring Q&A.  If you use terminology like “chat” or “discussion”, it automatically gives a different impression.  Like you’re just two strangers chatting over coffee in the middle of the afternoon.  Rather than just doing a strict question and response, also interact, throwing in the occasional “that’s quite interesting”, “uh-huh”, “oh really?”  Just having this flavour of exchange in mind while talking to your source opens up new avenues of communication.  They’ll feel encouraged to relax, open up, and be far more genuine.  And this is the golden material you want!
  4. Ask open-ended questions.  Don’t ask questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no”.  You want to ask questions that allow for creative and developed responses.  Don’t ask: “Do you like being a teacher?”  Instead ask: “What do you find most fulfilling about being a teacher?”  This gives you material your readers will want to know about. 
  5. Ask easy questions first and last.  Starting off with the easiest questions builds rapport and familiarity.  Save the tough, detailed questions for the middle after you have some level of comfort with one another.  Then at the end – to wrap up and end on a positive note – throw in a couple more of your shorter, easier inquiries.
  6. Permit tangents, but only brief ones.  Some of your best material will often come from tangents that your interviewee takes you on.  But remember, if they aren’t providing fruitful information that will add to your article, re-focus and get them back on track.  Simply saying something like, “I’d love to get back to that point you made earlier about…” will suffice.
  7. Be unbiased and neutral.  Be as neutral as possible.  The interview is about them and not you.  It doesn’t matter if you hate them, worship them, or are indifferent.  Whatever your stance (if you have one going in or develop one during your talk), do not let it seep into the interview.  This will affect both the type and quality of material you get back.  If you’re meeting in person, meet on neutral ground – not at your house or theirs.
  8. Keep notes.  Even if you’re recording the interview, it’s best to take notes.  Record the correct spelling of terms or names you aren’t very familiar with.  Scribble out your brainstorming.  Add in comments about tone, body posture, etc. if this is applicable and you are in-person.
  9. Remember legalities.  In Canada, which is where I’m from, it’s illegal to record anyone without their permission.  However, no matter where my source calls home, I always ask simply out of respect.
  10. Always be considerate and show gratitude.  Make sure you schedule a time and day in advance that is considerate of your source’s going-ons.  Give them multiple openings and let them decide what is best for them.  Then stick to it!  Respect their time and don’t start the interview late or early.  If something comes up, reschedule well ahead of time.  And most of all – say thank you!  Show gratitude, send a little thank you card or note, whatever it takes.  Remember your source had no obligation to give you their time or attention.  They are helping you.
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2 comments

  1. Nice post on the art of the interview. I’ve gotten some really good and interesting results by tacking on a last question in a phone or email interview — “Is there anything I forgot to ask you, or that you’d like to add?” 😉


  2. I totally agree. That’s another thing I did do and I definitely advise for others to consider. Very good point!



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