How to get exactly what you need from interviews
Conducting interviews is a very important part of being a freelance writer. For me, the best interviews are those where you get exactly what you need in the shortest amount of time possible. These are the interviews where the interviewee feels heard and understood, and where your questions hit the mark. But not every interview goes smoothly, in fact, I’ve had some shockers. Here are my top tips for preparing for interviews and getting exactly what you need.
How freelance writers can get exactly what they need from interviews
Actually, I’ve been a freelance writer for over eight years and I still have to take a deep breath before I interview someone, regardless of whether it is over the phone or via email.
Give your interviewees the heads-up
Once you’ve found fantastic sources to interview for your story, I’ve found that if you’re doing a face-to-face or phone interview it always helps to email them beforehand to confirm the interview time, the place (if you’re meeting in person) and to give them a sense of the questions you’re going to be asking.
You don’t have to email the exact questions, but I usually say something like:
“During the interview I’d like to ask you questions about your background and when you first started surfing, your views on XXX, how XXX has changed your surfing practices and whether you think XXX”.
This helps people feel comfortable and prepared and it also makes you do a bit of legwork initially before you properly prepare for the interview.
Know when to use email interviews
It took me a long time to realise that email interviews could be a super useful tool for freelance writers.
Email interviews are usually an efficient use of time; there’s no transcription involved and you have your case study’s words in print (e.g. they can’t dispute that they never said particular things).
For articles that draw on expert commentary, I’ve found that email interviews are great.
But when I need to delve into an individual’s personal life or I need colourful quotes, I’d always prefer to meet face-to-face or conduct a Skype/Facetime interview.
In email interviews, it’s important to craft your questions carefully.
I’m always sure to ask questions like, “How would you explain your research/perspective/organisation to someone in primary school?” or “Can you describe your research or the findings in just a couple of sentences?”
If I’m conducting an email interview for my corporate writing, I’ll often offer my case study the opportunity for an email interview, and say that if I have questions or if they’d prefer to talk, we can always schedule a phone call.
Be content with silence
This is hard.
But if you can hold and sit with silence and pause for a bit, you’ll get great answers.
Even if you have a list of questions that you want to work through, it’s important to take your time and not rush your interviewee.
Don’t be afraid to make a personal connection (but don’t over share)
Lots of writers ask me if they should be sharing their own experiences with their interviewees.
Ideally, I think you would only share your own experiences or point of view if they add value to the interview.
I’ve definitely had interviews where I’ve shared something about my life because I’ve wanted to connect with the person or it’s been a way of showing them I understand their experience in some small way.
But the truth is, I’ve found that generally people are happy talking about themselves and aren’t that interested in hearing about you!
If I find myself about to share something about my life or my experience, I always try to stop myself and just ask, what is the purpose of sharing this?
Make sure you’ve understood
This is a very simple thing to do, but every time I ask this question, I’m so glad I did.
It’s always worthwhile checking that you’ve understood what a case study has told you, by saying something like:
“Can I just check that I’ve understood you correctly? You’re saying that XXXX. Is that right?”
I’ve found that if you’ve got it right, people will agree and sometimes even expand (which is great because often it gives you a fresh quote and a new way of saying something) or if you’ve got it incorrect, they’ll take the opportunity to correct you.
Asking to see the article before it’s published
If you can, avoid this at all costs.
Even if people say they only want to check their quotes, more often than not once they have a full article in front of them, they just can’t help themselves and start tinkering with your sentences, grammar and prose.
In my experience, the best way to handle this is to say something like:
“I’m afraid I can’t show you the full article”
and then follow up with:
“Is there something in particular you’re concerned about?”
I’ve found that by asking that follow up question, you quickly get to the heart of why interviewees want to see the article before it’s published.
Some want to make sure that you’ve got the facts right, others just want to sticky beak and others want to know how you’ve portrayed them and their story.
Of course, there’s anxiety in speaking to a journalist and having your responses recorded, transcribed and written about so I totally understand that they may feel jittery about what gets written about them.
Unless there are exceptional circumstances, I’d recommend that you don’t show people the full article before it’s published.
Lots of writers read quotes to interviewees over the phone.
Personally, I’ve found that it takes too much time to try and set up another time to do this, so I usually email them through their quotes.
I always remind interviewees that the quotes may seem unusual out of context and ask them to only change the quotes if they are factually incorrect.
As you can imagine, this doesn’t always work!
The magic question
Years ago when I trained as a social worker we were told about the importance of open-ended questions.
These are questions that invite people to elaborate and expand, rather than answering with a simple yes or no.
One of the best questions to ask just before you finish the interview is:
“Is there anything else you’d like to add”
“Is there anything that I should have asked you about but didn’t or anything that you wanted to say but haven’t had a chance?”
I find that most people will say something like, “No, I think that’s all really.”
But if you just pause for a second, they will usually keep talking and add on. 80% of the time I reckon this is where the gold is in interviews.
Be aware of vicarious trauma
Vicarious trauma is a stress reaction that can occur when people are exposed to traumatic information, often through listening to the stories of people they are working with.
I remember years ago attending a seminar with a well-known journalist who tackles some really hard topics. I asked him how he dealt with the difficult subject matter he wrote about.
He told me that he tries to alternate writing one tough story with a nice one.
I was struck by how simplistic this was, but he assured me that it was effective for him.
As a freelance writer, it’s definitely worth being aware of how other people’s stories can impact you.
There are multiple signs of vicarious trauma including being unable to switch off, withdrawn behaviour, disturbed sleep, increased absenteeism from work without a specific explanation, or feeling hopeless and overwhelmed by interviewee’s needs.
Conducting a great interview is one of the joys of being a freelance writer and I’ve found these simple tips have really helped me gather some great content over the years.
How do you get what you need from interviews? Do you have any extra tips?