12 Insider Secrets to Successful Interviews

Any article (or sales letter) that you write must have its fair share of facts. And that’s where interviews come in. So, today, let’s talk about how to conduct a really productive interview.

Secret No. 1: Ask questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer. Though a “yes” or “no” answer from the person being interviewed can confirm or discount a statement you’ve made, such a perfunctory answer won’t get you the kind of meaty, quotable information you’re after. Instead, ask questions that begin with “the five W’s and the H.” That’s code for “who, what, where, when, why, and how.”

Secret No. 2: Decide what it is you really need from your interviewee. Whoever you happen to be interviewing, it’s always important to keep the reason (or reasons) for the interview in mind so you stay focused on gathering the information you really need. So, ask yourself “What do I want this guy to give me?” Make a “need-to-know” list and keep it in front of you while you’re preparing your questions.

Secret No. 3: Write down the questions you intend to ask. Having your questions written down is an invaluable safety net. Even if I have my questions memorized, at least I know I can always look at what I’ve prepared if I’m at a loss for words. And at the end of an interview, I always skim my questions to see if I’ve overlooked anything.

Secret No. 4: Don’t hesitate to ask for interviews. You should never hesitate to ask for an interview. People like to talk about themselves and their own experiences, and they are flattered that you’re interested in their opinions.

Secret No. 5: Set up your interviews in advance. It’s usually wise to set up formal interviews in advance. You can usually do this over the phone or via e-mail. And it’s smart to give folks a sense of what you’re interested in learning and how long your interview will likely be. (I’ve found it makes sense to schedule at least half an hour.)

Secret No. 6: Arm yourself with the right equipment. If you’re interviewing somebody face-to-face, be sure to bring along a notebook and a pen or two. You may also want to buy one of those tiny tape recorders to make sure you have an accurate record of quotes. But make sure you take detailed notes as well. Those little machines malfunction and get lost. And, what’s more, it takes forever to transcribe an interview from tape.

Secret No. 7: Approach your interview like a conversation. Pay attention to the person you’re speaking with and react to his or her statements as you would in a normal conversation. You can comment here or there, nod your head, indicate you understand. Ask follow-up questions. And rephrase your question if you didn’t get the full answer you were looking for.

Secret No. 8: Remain flexible during the interview. The person you’re talking with may take a subject and run with it, and you may find yourself pursuing an interesting angle you hadn’t thought of or even known about when you made up your list of questions.

Secret No. 9: Establish immediately what’s “on the record” and what’s “off the record.” Start the interview by saying “I’ll assume everything we talk about is ‘on the record’ unless you tell me otherwise.” That way, you don’t risk gathering a lot of great information only to have your interviewee tell you, as you walk out of the room, “Oh, by the way, all that I said about XX . . . that’s off the record.”

Secret No. 10: Ask if you may follow up should you think of anything else. It’s not unusual, especially when you’re starting out as an interviewer, to find that when you sit down to write your piece you’re missing some information. Don’t worry. Just remember to ask the person you’re interviewing, before the end of the interview, if it’s OK to call him or her back should you think of any additional questions. Most interviewees have no problem with your doing so.

Secret No. 11: Get your contact information right. Either at the start of the interview or at its close, make sure you have the correct spelling of your interviewee’s name and up-to-date contact information for him or her.

Secret No. 12: Write a thank-you note. You don’t have to write pages and pages, but always write at least a few lines to thank an interviewee for taking the time to speak with you.

(Ed. Note: The above article was excerpted from “Passport to Romance,” the travel-writing course written by Jen Stevens for AWAI. For information about the course, click on http://www.thetravelwriterslife.com/etr1.)