As a copywriter, I often interview subjects for an article. At first, I used to find this quite intimidating. But after a few interviews, I realised the secret was all in the preparation.
It’s kind of like a blind date. You don’t know the person you’re interviewing and they have absolutely no idea who you are. In most cases, as a freelancer, you don’t even work for the same organisation. So, there’s a lot of explaining and context to provide before you can get past the initial awkwardness and allow the conversation to flow.
So, after many interesting types of conversations, some definitely more successful than others, here are my best tips for getting the most out of an interview.
Avoid making a cold call
No-one likes to receive a cold call, even when it’s about something you might actually be interested in. So, to get your interview off on the right footing, always try and give your subject some time to prepare and set the scene beforehand.
If you can, I recommend getting both an email and phone number. I often like to email someone first, to introduce myself and explain why I’d like to speak to them. It also allows you to perhaps include the person who initially requested the article in the email to provide further support.
You can then follow up with a phone call and arrange a suitable time to do the interview when neither of you is in a rush and you’re both in the right headspace to get the most out of your time together.
Allow time for small talk
Once the interview time arrives and you both finally connect, don’t dive straight in and launch into your pre-prepared questions. Use the first few minutes to try and build rapport with your subject. Allow them to talk a bit about their day or their weekend. Perhaps share a funny story about something that happened to you recently.
Basically, allow time for both of you to get comfortable. And for you in particular, this may be the first opportunity you get to gauge the personality of your subject. Do they seem jovial or serious? Do they seem like someone who loves to chat or are they going to be a one-word answer person?
These first few minutes are critical in defining how you set up the rest of the interview.
Research your subject and topic first
Never assume you can get everything you need to know from the interview. You will come across people who just aren’t good at sharing information and require some serious “teeth pulling” to get anything useful out of them. In such cases, doing some prior research into both the person you’re talking to and the topic will help you tease out more information.
After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. So, if you rely totally on the interview you could be missing a great angle for your article.
With so much information now available on social media, it’s pretty easy to research your subject. Find out a little about their background, their career and their areas of expertise. You never know how this might come in useful.
Let’s say you’re writing an article about insurance claims for example and you’re chatting with the National Claims Manager. He explains to you how the team is known for going above and beyond when investigating claims for customers, how they have successfully overturned an insurers’ decisions by pursuing additional information.
Through further conversation you might then discover that the National Claims Manager has a real focus on detail and order, and this is a characteristic that really helps them in their work. However, it also manifests itself in other more amusing ways…they could be one of those people that has everything neatly aligned on their desk, even colour coordinated, and the slightest change to this makes them very uncomfortable.
If you included this in your article, you’ve suddenly got an interesting human angle that will capture the reader’s attention and make them smile.
Don’t be a slave to your questions
You’ve spent time doing your research and you’ve made a list of all the things you want to ask. But don’t feel like you have to force the conversation into a strict question and answer format. This can sometimes inhibit a good conversation and end up in very limited one word or sentence answers.
Instead, if you let the conversation flow, you’ll find out things you didn’t even know could be useful. Let the subject go off on a tangent if they want to. But make sure you still stay in control of the conversation. A particular answer to a question may actually spark other questions you hadn’t originally thought of, so don’t be afraid to explore further and deeper before coming back to your list.
And if the order that you ask the questions in changes, that’s ok too. What you thought was logical at the start may not be so logical in reality. The best conversations are those that morph and change along the way.
Don’t forget, you can always go back and ask any questions you skipped at the end. “Ok before we wrap up there’s just a couple of other questions I’d like to ask…”
Recap what you’ve learned
Once you feel like you’ve got all the information you need, and you’ve made comprehensive notes, try and recap the main take outs to your subject. This allows you to structure your thoughts. It also gives them the opportunity to clarify anything you may have misinterpreted or even missed completely.
This should only take a couple of minutes. I’m not suggesting you go back and read through all your notes!
Offer to share the final article
This may not always be relevant, but if you’ve had a great conversation during the interview, you may find the subject is interested to see what you write. I sometimes offer to share the final article with someone. Or if it’s something quite technical, perhaps ask them if they’d like to review before you submit it (if time allows of course).
It’s a nice way to finish the interview and make them feel engaged in the whole project. Very rarely will someone comment on the way you’ve written an article. They’ll understand that style is your thing. But it provides a good sanity check for you to make sure you’ve got all the facts right.
If you’ve got a great interview story, something that went really well, or even one that went horribly wrong, why not share it with me.