developing questions for interviews

The interview goal

Among the most basic questions an interviewer must ask herself is the reason she chose the source. Is the article a profile piece, an article that highlights the subject’s achievements and philosophy? Or will the interview be in depth and probe the source’s life, philosophy, victories and defeats? Or, is this interview part of a series of interviews that the writer is conducting to ventilate a topic? You decide and plan accordingly.

Think of an interview as a directed conversation with the writer in control. The writer will guide the source through a series of questions, some open-ended and some closed-ended. As the master of the “interview universe,” you have the power to steer the conversation into the directions that are most relevant for the article that you envision. When your source gets off topic, say, “That’s intriguing and I’d like to pursue that topic in a few minutes. For now, I’d like to know about . . . ” Make a note to yourself to ask about the stray topic and broach it at the end of the interview.

Control within flexibility

Be advised. At times the source will interject a thought that you haven’t considered, and you must be sensitive to the possibility of a new topic. One freelance writer tended to reject those little stories all of us tend to use when illustrating a point. The writer thought these anecdotes interrupted the flow of fact stacked upon fact. Years later, he learned the power and appeal of a little story, and the role of a source in the collaborative effort to create an article of merit.

While it is good to think of your source as the key to the effort, don’t allow her to bully you. Some sources feel entitled to interview the interviewer. They may demand to know your political identity, your marital status, or the size of your bowling shoe. Resist the urge to be combative; rather tell the source enough information to get on with the business at hand. Should the source persist and demand to know personal information about you, gently suggest that her story is of more interest, and, if time permits, perhaps you can share some of your background.

This give-a-little to get-a-little approach is the basis of a conversation, and a writer must sense that good manners dictate that some exchange is necessary, but how much? As a religion editor, I often found sources questioning me about major and minor theological issues. Often, they were afraid that I may distort their views by virtue of my existing convictions. Try to put your source at ease by assuring her that your goal is to be accurate. Or, in very awkward moments, tell the source that you would love to share more personal information about yourself, but you can’t because of doctor’s orders. The statement makes no sense, but it has the power of authority and it may throw the person off the scent. Be sure to ask your physician if you can use that line! You may be amazed how well this harmless rebuttal works. Say it whimsically with laughter in your eyes, and your source will get the hint that the story is about her, not you.

If all else fails, you can always answer a question by posing a question, “Why do you ask? Is that a problem? Are you concerned?” Again, remind your source that your goal is to write about her with gusto. Sometimes all a source wants is some reassurance. Give her as much reassurance as you can, but avoid deception. If your article is about the person’s criminal past, be honest. Say, “I plan to ask you some tough questions, but I want to give you a chance to give your side.”

Check out our on-demand workshop “Conducting effective interviews.”

Do your homework

To get to the meaty questions about philosophy, toil, hardship and success, the routine questions must be satisfied. Questions about age, education and work history can be avoided by doing research before the interview. The World Wide Web is one source of information about a person and the topic with which she is associated. Electronic databases such as Lexis-Nexis and other similar databases, using the Internet, will allow you to search newspapers and magazines for articles already published on the person and topic.

If that fails, contact the source and ask her to recommend articles that may have been published on her. Ask about articles on the topic that are associated with your source. Often the source can direct you to “the article” that you can use to develop your article. Failing that, obtain a copy of the person’s resume or vita. Always check and double-check the information. Ask the source if anything has changed in the resume, or if the previously published articles contained errors. I make it a habit of checking facts before the article goes to print. I’ve never had a source refuse a request to double-check my information.

Make a list

From your research, you can develop a series of questions. Your goal is to write an article that reveals the source in a fresh way, so think of questions that build on what is already known. It’s a good practice to talk to the source’s friends and co-workers as part of the interview preparation. Using the previously published articles, interviews with others, the vita or resume, you can develop a series of questions that will help you in the interview. Have a direction to pursue, but be ready to change directions if the source offers new information that is compelling.

Some writers use three-by-five cards like private investigator Kinsey Millhone in Sue Grafton’s novels. The P.I. uses index cards to list her facts as she explores the case for suspects. You can use these cards to list your questions. Arrange them in order from easy to more difficult. It is good to memorize them, and be ready to jump ahead depending on the flow of the interview.

Above all, listen well. Listen for facts and listen for feeling. It’s called active listening. A person who sighs as she tells you a fact may be saying she is sad, hurt, broken or philosophical. Stop. Say, “You seem to be sad. Are you? Why?” This active listening technique works well, but it can slow down the rhythm of the interview if you are after just the facts, not the emotions. Use judgment. The technique works, but it is best to keep it in reserve for special occasions. Imagine the emotions that may erupt if you insist on identifying the affect of the source each time she speaks. Be careful, and don’t use this advanced technique with people who are too young or too immature to know that they don’t have to answer your questions. Sources are allowed to decline to comment.

One writer interviewed a poet about her literary work. The writer dutifully asked about the woman’s career including her first poem. In the process, the woman mentioned that she used her poetry as therapy with her cancer. The writer wrote down the remark and went on with her prepared questions. By not listening, the writer missed an opportunity to mine that intriguing area of cancer therapy–poetry! We must listen.

The beauty of the writing process is the challenge to think on the spot, to listen for that rare insight, to see the color that others walk by. It’s the joy of writing. It’s the gift of story telling. To do it well, prepare hard with good questions, but listen well to hear the heartbeat of your source. At times, an interview will be a couple of questions that provide basic information; at other times, the interview will be an elaborate exchange where you may feel like a psychiatrist, parent or confessor. Be responsible with this role. You are empowered to collect information for your audience. Don’t waste anyone’s time by probing into issues that are irrelevant, but be ready to ask the tough questions with all the skill you can possess.

Formulating questions and recording answers

The better interviewers ask sources to provide explanation. At times the writer will ask routine information such as her work title, but the better questions, the ones that excite the source, get at her opinions and the rationale for them.

Your goal is to help the source relax and speak freely. It’s a kind of dance, a kata, where the interviewer starts slow, gaining the confidence of the source, and then moving into more difficult questions. It requires taking notes, but the goal is to be unobtrusive about the note-taking to keep the source relaxed. Pocket tape recorders are fine, but mechanical instruments can fail; note pads won’t.

When using a recording device, allow the source to know that you are recording. You can reassure her by explaining that it will help with accuracy. It’s better to keep the recorder out of sight once the source has agreed to the interview. When tapes are running, people tend to measure their words and the rhythm of real speech is lost. If the source doesn’t want the interview recorded, don’t fight with her. Try to explain that the recording is meant to supplement your notes. If she still refuses, resort to the old-fashioned technique and write fast.

Most writers develop some kind of note hand where they get the subject and verb and some of the other main words. To get it right, take time immediately following the interview to insert all the words that you can in your notes, then type the notes. The writing of the story will go so much smoother this way. If possible, try crafting an article as soon after the interview as possible. Again the article will go much better if it written while the information is fresh.

New writers may not be aware of the impressions that can be banked following an interview. Your story will be better if you include more than the source’s words. How did the source hold her head when she recounted the tragic fall off the ladder? Watch her hands. Listen for background noises, including traffic and music. When appropriate, ask the source to explain why she wagged her finger at you during her answer. How do these gestures link to the words? It is best for you to write down these gestures as the person is talking.

When you can’t listen, write, watch and think all at the same time, make sure you pause following the interview to fill in as much of the information as possible. One freelance writer admitted, “This is my weakest area, I’m so busy doing all the other things that I fail to listen sometimes and miss what’s being said. I really have to concentrate. I rely on my tape recorder to bail me out.”

You may not need it, but it gives you a sense of authorial power to know the carpet was a misty green color, that the cherry bookshelves have five shelves, and that the potpourri scent was apple spice. Irrelevant? Maybe. Only you, the writer, know how you will craft this article, and it is easier to have all the raw materials ready to go, rather than make a return visit just for one or two items.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Michael Ray Smith‘s book Used with permission.

Download the entire book for free from our MTI Online resource center.

Photo by Hadija on Unsplash

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