A column about writing in business
How To Interview Someone
Interviews matter. Interviews are the foundation of good reporting. They are the best way of understanding a complicated situation and seeing it from someone else's perspective. A wise, old editor of mine used to say "report it out." She meant "go talk to people, don't rely on your own opinions and judgment." It's a good maxim. One of my rules of thumb is to do one interview for each 250-500 words of final copy. So here are my top tips for a good interview. Your mileage may vary and I'm keen to hear any other suggestions. (See also how to give a good interview and why interviews go wrong.)
- Choose the right format. Sometimes a face to face interview is good. More often, for me, a phone interview works best.
- Face to face. For a feature about an individual, I like to do several face to face interviews. The first is really a get-to-know session without notes and off the record. It is a reconnaissance. Then the major interview. Finally a follow-up interview around the time I'm writing the piece.
- Phone interviews. I love phone interviews. There's something confessional about them and it's easy to strike up a rapport with someone. I type quickly enough to take a more or less real time transcript during a phone interview which makes this form of interview particularly efficient. Also, a phone interview cuts out travel time and waiting around for people to turn up. Also, it makes interviews much easier to schedule as most people can find 20 or 30 minutes in their diary but a face to face interview seems to require an hour and a lot more commitment.
- Avoid email interviews. I've done two or three email interviews in my time and they've all been unsatisfactory. The results have been stilted and unnatural.
- Have a backup. For face to face interviews, I prefer to use two recorders or one recorder and hand written notes. Nothing could be worse than getting back from an interview and finding that you didn't have any record. Mind you I ended up spending 15 minutes of an interview with Google's Sergey Brin talking about digital Dictaphones instead of Google's future.
- Have enough time. I was promised an hour-long interview with an airline executive for a profile I was writing for a UK magazine. On the day, the PR involved said it would have to be a 15 minute phone interview. I talked to my editor and we agreed that I should do it but the three page feature would be cut to a half page news item. Left to my own devices, I would have pulled out altogether.
- Manage PR people. PR minders are a frequent nuisance when I interview people. They're helpful when they book up an interview and make sure that the people turn up. However, I find their silent presence on phone interviews oppressive and I suspect that it intimidates the interviewee as well. Generally now, I won't do an interview unless it is a one to one deal.
- Don't give questions in advance. I don't prepare questions in advance and I always say no to people who ask me to send them a list of questions. Partly, this is because I don't work that way and partly I don't want people over-preparing. Also, my interviews tend to be quite free-ranging. Similarly, I don't give copy approval to interviewees. Apart from anything else, it would be logistically impossible for most of my work. (The exception is for certain corporate assignments where the work is being published by the company that employs the interviewee.)
- Avoid group interviews. An interview is essentially a one-to-one situation but many interviewees like to have a colleague in on the interview. Often they do this if they feel that their technical knowledge isn't up to scratch. If I interview two people, it becomes harder to properly attribute quotes. Also, you miss out on potentially valuable contributions. Only one person can talk at a time. I would rather do two separate interviews. Again, I am increasingly against doing this.
- Prepare and research in advance. I don't usually prepare a list of questions, although I'll sometimes have a list of topics to cover. However, I do like to Google the interviewee, look up their employer and review other related interviews for angles and questions. I have an interview template in Word and I usually set this up before the interview with all the contact information and some initial thoughts and topics for the interview.
- Avoid the word "interview." Most people think an interview is a scary thing. They think of job interviews or the kind of TV interviews that politicians do. Neither model works for a good journalistic interview. I prefer the words "chat," "conference call" or "conversation."
- Confirm the time and date in advance and send reminders. One in four interviewees don't turn up or aren't available when I call them. I've started sending Microsoft Outlook meeting invitations which form a sort of contract because they have to be accepted or rejected by the interviewee. It's also helpful to send an email reminder the day before. I am researching ways to offer interviewees a choice of interview slots on a self-service basis so that I can semi-automate the process of booking interviews. At the moment, arranging the interview usually takes longer than actually doing it. Does anyone have any suggestions?
The interview itself
- Introduce yourself. I like to introduce myself at the start of every interview. I tell people who I am, my relationship to the publication I'm writing for and what the piece is about. I call it the Government health warning. It's a courtesy but it's also a kind of protection. Doing it consistently means that any interviewee knows exactly where they stand.
- How to record interviews. I like to do interviews on Skype and use HotRecorder to record them to MP3. A headset is a must and I use a Plantronics USB CS60 handsfree headset for Skype calls. This leaves both hands free for typing notes. I also have a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard which is quieter than my old Dell keyboard so that the sound of typing doesn't intrude on the interview.
- Observe the legalities. In the UK, you have to tell people you're recording a conversation because of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA as it is charmingly known. I tend to say "I'm keeping a record of this conversation to make sure I don't forget anything." Even if it weren't a legal obligation, I think it is a courtesy to say so. I don't record all my interviews.
- Be yourself. My interview style is discursive, subjective and personal. My favorite interviews are the ones where I find common ground with the person I'm talking to and we have a fun, stimulating conversation. This means I have to come to the party dressed as myself. I interviewed Stephen Bungay a while ago for this blog and I had expected to chat for an hour. We ended up talking for four hours.
- Be enthusiastic. People like people who like them. They are also conditioned to think of an "interview" as a potentially hostile situation and be on their guard. Consequently, you should be upbeat and positive. Do this genuinely if you can. Otherwise, engage your sincerity simulator.
- Shut up. You should be talking about 10-20% of the time at most. (This is my biggest weakness -- I often end up interviewing myself!)
- Listen hard. Sometimes you can pick up a word or a phrase in an answer which you can play back to the interviewee and get something much more intimate, interesting or honest. Interviews aren't scripted Q&As, they are intense professional conversations and you need to concentrate.
- Capture the basic information. I use a template form for all my interviews that captures: name (get the spelling right), job title, contact details, time and date of interview and intended publication. Job titles can be difficult. Sometimes people have very long-winded or obscure titles. These don't work well on the printed page. If this is the case, I like to get a more informal job description agreed with the interviewee. Tech companies are notorious for acronym-laden job titles. The important thing is to get the interviewee's agreement to whatever you use. I like to ask: "how would you like me to describe you in the article."
- Get past the canned speech. If an interviewee has been media trained, my heart sinks. Usually, it means I have to listen to 10-20m of self-important waffle prepared for them by their PR department. Sometimes you have to let people do their duty and then you can get to the interview. Sometimes asking the same question three times will elicit, on the third go, a more honest, human answer. Building a rapport with them on non-controversial subjects (like their job title or their recent career history) can put them at their ease. I'm not trying to trick people into saying something they don't want to say. I'm trying to trick them into saying something in a natural, human way. A good interview sounds like an intelligent conversation over coffee not a standup PowerPoint presentation.
- Don't lose control. Sometimes, especially with self-important interviewees, you can get into a bit of a tug-of-war over who is in charge of the interview. Never forget that you are the CEO of the interview. You don't have to be bossy but it's important that you get what you need from the interview and you steer it in the direction you want to go.
- Focus on what you need. Sometimes people get absorbed in details or get too waffly and abstract. Sometimes you need a specific quote or a good story. A timely intervention is sometimes required to redirect the interview. Phrases like "do you have any stories that illustrate that point," or "how does this relate to the bigger picture" can be very useful ways to do this.
- Respect the interviewee's privacy. Although I make transcripts of all my interviews, I don't like to share them with anyone else. I know this is an ironic position but corporate clients often ask for the transcript as well as the finished article. There are three problems with this. First, redacting a transcript for public consumption is a task in itself, not a freebie. Second, it encourages clients to start rewriting my piece. Third, I think it's not fair to the interviewee because an interview has some usable bits and a lot of filler.
- Be courteous. Say thank you afterwards. If you can provide a copy of the final article, do so.