Sometimes, finding a good story isn’t the problem. You could be innocently sitting at your desk, sneaking in a play on Facebook Scrabble, when you get a new email. Why, it’s from the academic dean, and he just wanted to let you know about this student who is not only first chair trombone in the local symphony orchestra, but has also not allowed a goal in net all season as the lacrosse team’s goalie and has logged 250 hours of community service this semester at a nearby soup kitchen. Oh, and she’s got a 4.0 GPA, pre-med. And she was raised by wolves. OK, fine, she wasn’t raised by wolves, but she does hail from a small mountain town in Wyoming and is a first-generation college student.
Man! What a great profile for the website! Sometimes the stories write themselves, don’t they?
No, actually. They never do.
The bulk of the writing for any story—which, for the purposes of this discussion, could be a news story, a Q&A, a thumbnail profile or any kind of narrative web feature—comes before you even type the first word. It comes in the research and the interview.
Here are some interview tips to make writing of a good story easier:
1. Do your research
Don’t rely on the subject to tell you everything in the interview. Spare everyone’s time by learning as much as you can beforehand. This will help make your questions more informed (“What was the key to winning player of the week three weeks in a row?” versus “How successful has this season been for you?”)
2. Why are you writing this, and who is it for?
In writing-speak, a goal is an angle. Have a good sense of what you want this story to ultimately accomplish. Where will it be published? Will it be a long feature or a brief? Will it run in both print and web? Who is the target audience? What impression do you want your audience to come away with having read it? What do you want them to do?
3. Location, location, location
Pick an interview location you know will be available and relatively quiet. That said, be prepared to go with the flow. I’ve set up interviews in the Campus Center, only to arrive and find the Campus Center randomly closed for construction. Have a backup spot in mind, and don’t get worked up about it—it won’t help the interview if you curl into a stressball.
4. Photo and video
The best location for an interview may not be the best location for a photo or video shoot, and vice versa. Plus, some people get nervous around cameras. If you can avoid it, try to have your interview and any camera action take place separately. Don’t worry about requesting two slices of your subject’s time. Everyone wants publicity, and they will spend the time to get it.
5. Did you get all of that?
In addition to taking copious notes, you should audio record every interview you do, but always ask permission first, both for phone and in-person interview. I let the subject know it’s just for transcription purposes (unless I know that we may be doing a multimedia component, in which case I let them know that, as well).
6. Use your questions as a guide
It’s always good to come up with a list of questions ahead of time, but don’t stick to them rigidly. Be open to where the conversation takes you. Ask follow-up questions. Extract context. Press for additional details.
7. Don’t be afraid of tangents
While sometimes tangents can be dangerous, especially if you’re short on time or end up getting way off track, they can sometimes lead you to places where the subject is more at ease. That can help with the rest of the interview. If you’re profiling a professor of engineering, but you happen to know he is also an avid cook, chat about that for a little while. You’ll likely stoke a passion that will open him up, and you may even find some neat metaphors for your piece.
8. Delve into their background
Whether I’m interviewing a jazz saxophonist or a geneticist, I always ask how they got interested in what they’re doing. The answer likely goes back to high school or college, sometimes earlier, and often makes for a good anecdote that may end up as your lead.
9. Avoid yes/no questions
Ask questions designed to solicit open-ended, reflective or explanatory answers. “Were you guys excited to win the championship?” gets replaced with “How did it feel to hoist the trophy after you scored the winning goal?”
10. Get the details
Years, dates, hometowns, last names—I get as much of this as I can during the interview. You don’t want to rely solely on the…
At the end of every interview, I always ask for the best way to get in touch if I have any follow-up questions, because chances are, I will. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions or to get confirmation on spellings, dates, etc. Something that made sense during the interview may make little sense three days later.
12. Always Be Closing
The best way to close an interview is to simply ask if there is anything you didn’t cover. I’m always shocked when I get responses like, “Oh, well, I’m also founding this nonprofit” or “Well, I’m also going to Africa next week to teach English for a year.” Then the interview goes on for another 15 minutes. But that’s OK. That’s the good stuff. And since it got brought up voluntarily, they must be passionate about it.
13. Talk to others
In your interview, ask your subject whom she works closely with, respects or admires, or holds as a favorite professor. Then, go chat with them—they may not only give you additional details or fact-checks, but also supply some great supporting quotes.
How do you make sure you nail the interview? What questions do you ask? What other prep work goes into writing a good story?
Photo by sskennel / Flickr Creative Commons