It’s become a bit of a buzzword lately, but so much of writing has to do with empathy.
Whether you’re writing an opinion piece, an essay, or even a prescriptive how-to piece, you’re trying to connect with the reader and get them to see your point of view, which is what empathy is all about.
If you’re interviewing a subject, you’re trying to get the reader to see their point of view. This means you have to empathize and connect with your subject during the interview process. If you can keep this in mind when you’re thinking about how to conduct an interview, you’ll have a solid foundation for a successful one.
When you’re reaching out to people or brainstorming questions for them or when the interview goes off the rails and you have to get it back on track, your goal is always to connect with your subject and understand their perspective so that you can communicate it effectively as a writer. Keep that in mind as you go through these steps for conducting interviews for your writing.
Find the right person.
The first order of business in figuring out how to conduct an interview is to find the right person to interview in the first place, and that will depend on the nature of your story and what your editor wants. If you’re writing a reported piece, chances are you’ll need some kind of researcher or expert on that subject. If you’re writing a narrative piece, you may need to interview a regular, everyday person who’s going through whatever subject you’re talking about so that you have a story to tell. Either way, once you know the type of source you need, how do you actually find people to interview?
Expert sources are usually easier to find than “regular folks.” Experts are used to conducting interviews, and they might even have a website with media contact information where you can reach out to them directly. One way to find the right expert to interview is to look at other stories on your topic, then look for experts interviewed in that piece and reach out to them. On the other hand, it’s always a good idea to cultivate new voices as a writer, and that means doing your own research. Are there other experts or researchers who have written or conducted studies on the topic you’re writing about? When you do find an expert to interview, you could also ask them to suggest other people you can talk to for your story. The website Help A Reporter Out is also a good resource for journalists looking for sources.
When you’re looking for regular people to interview — that is, non-experts on whatever subject you’re writing about, reach out to your friends, family, and acquaintances and ask if they know anybody. I sometimes head to Twitter and post a request for interviews.
Reach out and request an interview.
Of course, before you actually conduct the interview you’ll need to reach out and ask for an interview in the first place. And chances are, the person you’re reaching out to is just like anyone else: extremely busy. So you want to keep your outreach email short and sweet but also offer enough information so the person can say yes or no. There are a few pieces of information to include in your outreach email:
- Who you are and the publication you’re writing for
- The subject of your story
- Why you think they would be a good person to interview for this piece
- What you’re asking, specifically. Is this a phone call? A few questions via email? How long will the interview take?
Finally, you should always thank them for considering your request — it’s just polite! Here’s an example of a query I often send out to experts I’m looking to interview:
Hi Dr. Morgan,
I came across an excerpt from your book about why email habits should be considerate, not just productive, and it resonated with me. I’m a freelance journalist writing a piece for Medium on “Who Pays The Price For Your Productivity?” and it explores the idea that someone must bear the brunt of the work we don’t want to do in our endless quest to be more productive, more “essential,” and more creative. I would love to interview you for this piece if you have any interest or availability. Would it be okay to send some questions your way or set up a time to chat? Either way, thanks so much for your time and consideration!
Find the right questions to ask.
If you’re going to interview someone, you need questions. So how do you know what to ask? Obviously, the questions you ask will vary depending on the topic. But when coming up with specific questions, consider the following:
- What made you curious about this topic?
- What don’t you understand about it?
- What do most people not understand about it?
- Are there any contrarian points of view? Why are they valid?
But there are also a few universal questions that I try to ask, no matter what I’m writing about:
- What made you want to study this topic in the first place?
- Is there anything people get wrong about this topic that you wish they would understand?
- Is there anything else you want to add? Anything I should have asked but didn’t?
You should always err on the side of having too many questions rather than not enough. Your subject may end up answering many of those questions upfront, so you want to be prepared. Also, I highlight the questions I absolutely need answers to, just in case the interview goes on a tangent and I forget to ask them.
Ask some follow-up questions, too.
Follow up questions are also extremely important. But it’s hard to offer any rules of thumb for following up on a question because it really comes down to connecting with the subject and being genuinely interested in what they’re saying. If you’re truly listening, follow-up questions should come naturally, just like having a conversation with anyone.
That said, conversations are hard! If you’re not sure what follow-up questions to ask or you get nervous during the interview, always return to your goal: Connecting with the subject. And sometimes that means admitting you’re flustered instead of pretending to keep your cool. A simple, “Wow, this is so much information and I’m trying to take it all in” might go a long way — the subject will usually try to help you out and keep talking. Or, at the very least, most people are understanding enough to let you gather your nerves.
Researchers, lawyers, politicians, and subject matter experts are notorious for being dry and sterile in their interviews. You can’t blame them! In their line of work, they often don’t have the luxury of being loose and casual with their language. They’re not used to talking about their expertise in layman’s terms. Your job as a reporter is to get them to do that, otherwise, your reader won’t be able to decipher the jargon.
The question, “What made you want to study this topic in the first place?” is useful for getting subjects to speak a little more casually. It’s my favorite icebreaker because it starts the interview off on a conversational note. Another tip if a subject starts getting too in-the-weeds on a topic: Ask them to explain it to you like you’re five-years-old. It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it usually gets them to ditch the sterile explanation and give you quotes you can actually use.
Prepare for the call.
Whenever possible, try to conduct your interview over the phone or in person. Email interviews have too much room for error. I’ve had subjects copy and paste answers they’ve given to other publications, which will make your story look bad. I’ve had subjects link to articles for questions I ask, unaware that I’m trying to get an original quote. Sometimes email interviews work out great, but you’ll get a more robust conversation — and usually better quotes — over the phone.
When you actually sit down for the interview, you want to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible. Find an area where background noise is limited. If you plan to record the interview — you should get their permission, in some states it’s illegal to record phone calls without the person’s permission — get a good call recording app. I use Google Voice, which has an option for recording calls. If you can’t find a call recording app you like, you could always put your phone on speaker and record from your computer or another device.
Be upfront with the subject on how much time the interview will take. That way, they know how long to talk (plus, it’s just courteous). Give yourself ten minutes before and after the interview to prepare and go over anything you need. When I’m writing down quotes (which I usually do a bit, even if I’m recording the interview) I will put an asterisk by anything really important that they’ve said, along with a timestamp (I look at the phone to see how long it’s been). This helps me find that quote in the transcript or audio file later.
How to conduct an interview: best practices
Finally, there are a handful of best practices when you’re interviewing anyone. If you’re recording the interview, ask them if this is okay — it’s just polite, but in some states, it’s also illegal to record calls without the person’s permission. If you’re talking about a sensitive subject, I usually tell the person I’m interviewing that, if they end up blurting out something they regret, to tell me it’s off-the-record in the moment or before the interview is over.
Never send the interviewee specific quotes you plan to use in your story. Your editor will be understandably upset if they find out you’ve run your quotes by that person — it’s bad journalistic practice. Your job as a reporter is not to make subjects happy or promote their brand or product — it’s to communicate their idea and your story.
Interviews can be hard and they’re often intimidating. But the more you do them, the more you get used to them. With practice, the process becomes much easier.