Conducting Interviews

writer conducting an interviewRecently I got a call from a PR agent who had set up an interview for me with one of her clients. She wanted to let me know how much the client had “enjoyed” the interview — a rare experience, apparently. She also wanted to let me know that if I needed more information, I had only to ask.

My first reaction was “Gee, what did I do?” My second was to wonder what other writers had done to give this client such a negative view of interviews. I’ll never know the answer to the second question. However, I do know that there are easy steps any writer can take to make a positive impression — before, during, and after an interview.

Before the Interview

By taking the right steps to set up your interview, you can ensure that you make a good impression, get the information you want, and (perhaps) gain a contact you can use for future articles.

1) Prepare your questions in advance. By having a list of questions handy, you’ll be able to answer an interviewee who asks, “What do you want to ask about?” You’ll also be prepared in case the interviewee surprises you by saying “Now is a good time!”

2) Ask for a specific amount of time. Do you want half an hour? An hour? This will help your interviewee schedule the appointment (and is especially important if you’re scheduling through a secretary or assistant).

3) Be honest about your purpose. If you don’t have a firm assignment, don’t pretend that you do. (You can, however, explain that you’re “pitching” the article to a specific market.) Don’t claim credentials that you don’t have. Unless you’re trying to interview a celebrity, you’ll find that most people are willing to talk to “ordinary” writers.

4) Don’t confuse time zones. Always refer to the interviewee’s time zone when making appointments — e.g., “I’ll call you at 2:00 your time.” Don’t even mention your own time zone; if you say something like “I’ll call you at 4:00, which is 2:00 my time,” you may confuse the interviewee as to which time you’re actually calling. Be sure you know exactly when the interview is scheduled as well; it can be embarrassing to call three hours too early or too late!

5) Let the interviewee schedule the interview. Often, you’ll be asked what time is convenient. Instead of setting a time yourself, suggest a range of times, such as “any afternoon next week,” or “any time on Wednesday or Thursday.” This gives the interviewee flexibility to work you into the schedule. Try not to leave interviews to the last minute; while many interviewees try to be helpful with respect to deadlines, you never know when someone will be out of town, too busy, or otherwise unavailable.

6) Ask the interviewee how s/he would prefer to be interviewed. Many people now prefer e-mail interviews, as this allows them to respond on their own time, and gives them the leisure to provide more in-depth answers. However, if you feel that you may need to follow up on questions, or have more control over the interview, you may prefer to push for a telephone interview.

7) Be prepared to e-mail your questions to the interviewee in advance. Business executives often prefer this, as it enables them to prepare for the specific types of information you’re looking for. This won’t always work if you’re conducting a sensitive, personal, or controversial interview, but it does work if you’re just gathering basic facts.

During the Interview

Keep your interviewee happy with the interview process by remaining courteous and professional — no matter what! As long as you remain polite, your interviewee is unlikely to be offended, even if your questions are sensitive or controversial.

1) Be prepared. Again, having a list of questions prepared in advance can help you guide the interview in the direction you want it to go. It can also help you double-check to make sure you’ve gotten all the information you need. Note that you may not actually “read” every one of your questions; often, an interviewee’s response to one question will give you the answers to other questions you wanted to ask.

2) Remember that the interview is about the interviewee, not about you. You are there to gather information, not to judge the person or the material. It doesn’t matter how you feel about the person, whether you agree or disagree with his/her perspective, or whether you like what you hear. Keep in mind as well that if you remain calm and nonjudgmental, you’re likely to get far more material than if you react negatively to the interviewee’s responses. (This applies to writing the interview as well. Let the reader judge the subject by his/her own words, not by your reactions to those words!)

3) Interact with the interviewee. Don’t just fire off questions and jot down the answers. Respond. Make “uh-huh” and “I see” and “Oh, really?” noises. Let the interviewee know that you are listening, and that you are genuinely interested in the information. Volunteer an occasional comment that shows that you understand what you are being told.

4) Let the interviewee set the tone. Don’t assume familiarity; instead, let the interviewee determine whether the discussion proceeds formally or informally. Don’t volunteer personal information or “chat” unless the interviewee has indicated that this seems appropriate.

5) Use the interviewee’s responses to keep the interview on track. If the interviewee goes off on a tangent, don’t just fire off another question to get back “on track.” Instead, refer back to something the interviewee has already discussed, e.g., “Getting back to what you were saying earlier about…” This shows, again, that you are listening, and indicates an interest in gathering more information, rather than a lack of interest in whatever the interviewee is currently discussing.

6) Always thank the interviewee for his/her time when the interview is over.

After the Interview

An interview isn’t necessarily “over” just because you’ve hung up the phone. You may need to come back for more information or clarification. You may also want to call upon that person’s expertise in the future, for other articles. The following courtesies can help keep you in the interviewee’s good will.

1) Send a thank-you note by e-mail or snail-mail. Let the interviewee know when and where the article will be published (if you know), or promise to provide that information once you have it.

2) Ask your editor to send complimentary copies of the issue to each interviewee. Be sure to include a list of interviewees (with their addresses) when you send in your article. If an editor balks, ask for extra copies to be sent to you, so that you can send them yourself.

3) When the article is published, send a copy with another thank-you letter. (It’s usually best to do this by snail-mail; don’t send the article as an e-mail attachment!) Ask whether the interviewee has received the complimentary copy (and remind the editor to send this if the answer is no).

Moira Allen is the editor of and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.