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
Meg B. says
When I was an undergraduate, I was responsible for writing 30 web profiles a month (yes, literally hundreds throughout the school year). At that time, I learned the importance of the tips above, but I also learned the importance of going into an interview genuinely excited to meet the person and really listen and read between the lines. It changes the dynamic completely when you take a true, vested interest in the student and their accomplishments.
Something I learned years after doing these web profiles was the impact these profiles have on the students themselves without even realizing it. I had a former student reach out to me three years after I conducted the interview to thank me for taking the time to speak with them. I was taken aback because most students didn’t seem to care. But this student was especially grateful as she had just gotten the job she wanted, and the employer told her it was because she typed her name into Google and the profile was the first thing that popped up. It gave the employer a deeper understanding of who the former student was (not to mention, it showed the employer that the student’s alma mater valued her so much they thought her story was web-worthy). In a day where social media and the web are often go-to’s for employers to learn about their potential employees, our efforts as storytellers often have a direct impact on that student. The reach of one story are endless because of the web. It can influence prospective students to attend, alumni to give, and encourage others to get involved. All of these reasons are why it’s critical to take the extra time to get excited about meeting the student, get every nugget of information and be the best storytellers we can be. It’s a win for everyone involved.
Georgy Cohen says
Meg, these are great points! You totally get into it what you put into it, and when you come in with genuine interest, you’re going to get a lot more out of the experience (both personally and for your ultimate piece) than you would have otherwise.
And to your other point — that’s one of the favorite parts of my job! For the student, it’s something that shows how the institution values their accomplishments, a validation of their hard work and something they can show to future advisors, employers, etc. And as you say, the reach goes far beyond whatever goal we initially go into it with.
Agree 100% about the enthusiasm part! And I always enjoy student profiles, because I think of it as if everyone is getting their own brief Spoon River Anthology entry (without the death, infidelity, rivalries, etc.). And you’re so right about how these profiles on the web can be a nice boost to the person interviewed.
Charna Westervelt says
Excellent tips, Georgy! I would also add a few more:
1. It’s an oldie, but a goodie: When your interviewee pauses in his/her response, resist the urge to fill the silence with a comment or another question. Just be quiet and listen. He or she is bound to talk and chances are it will be one of those wonderfully quotable moments.
2. It’s implied above, but first and foremost: Listen! (And… under no circumstances should you interrupt your interviewee. It’s about them. Not you.)
3. I used to (and, okay, I still do) read stories with an eye toward the quotes. I look at a specific quote and try to figure out what question the writer asked to get his/her subject to answer in that way.
Georgy Cohen says
Charna, #1 and #2 are so important. Early on, I had to train myself out of filling the silence (and still need to remind myself sometimes), because the best stuff really does come home to roost in those pauses. Thanks for the reminders here :-)
One of the most beneficial questions, especially when dealing with faculty research projects, is “How will your work benefit the world at large?” These stories are easy to get bogged down in details that are complex even to us educated folks, but a good answer to this question can place all that work in context and very often serve as the lead of my story. After all, the average reader doesn’t care all that much that Professor Plum has received a $100,000 grant as much as Professor Plum has received a grant to help save a threatened species of bog turtle, with methods that can impact preservation of other species, or to try to find better ways to teach students how to read or write.
Great post, by the way. I’ve been interviewing people since before our freshmen were alive, and I took away some nice tips from your entry!
Georgy Cohen says
Tim – Yes, definitely. The $100K may cause the splash and put something on the radar, but often what really matters is the impact that will be felt long after that $100K is spent. Great reminder – and thanks!
Norma Campbell says
I love all your tips, Georgy! Two things come to mind from years of conducting interviews:
1) Always be curious. This ties in to using your questions as a guide and not being afraid of tangents. Harnessing your natural inclination to getting to know others is a huge help when interviewing someone–particularly a stranger.
2) Remember that the story is about the person you’re interviewing and not you. Think of ways to make your subject shine, not ways of making you look like a great reporter.
And I echo what Charna says above me: be quiet and listen! :)
Georgy Cohen says
Norma – Curiosity is arguably the most essential component of our jobs. Thanks for chiming in!
Good tips! One closing question I like to ask ( particularly of students or alums) “What advice would you give to someone interested in ___?” framed in terms of their area of study/ experience or accomplishment. That can lead to some great testimonials – which administration always loves to see!
I’d also note the need for polite persistence. Star faculty & students are obviously busy, so sometimes it takes a campaign of emails, messages, and connections to get the person to sit down with you, even if you share the same building.
Thanks for the thoughtful post.
Georgy Cohen says
Alison, re: polite persistence, most definitely. And I’ve always found that people are pretty understanding of the fact that you’re trying to get your job done, and they usually appreciate the reminder if you’re trying to nail something down. Always important to balance respect for time with GTD. Thanks!
Patric Lane says
One tip related to #5 (“Did you get all of that?”) and tip #10 (“Get the details’):
Also take copious written notes re little details about the person and the surroundings, whether you’re interviewing them in their natural “environment” (lab, office, home, field research station, etc) or just at the local coffee shop.
For example, what color shirt are they wearing? How old does their desk look? What can you hear in the background? What does their laugh sound like? Do they photos on their wall, or an old rock concert poster? Do they tilt their head to one side when they’re thinking? etc etc etc. In addition to writing things down, maybe snap a few photos for “note taking” purposes — they don’t have to be publication quality, they’re just helpful jogging your memory later.
If you end up writing a feature profile, these kinds of details can prove invaluable for “painting a picture” of the person. During the interview, they’re also helpful for identifying possible tangent topics (re tip #7).
Great post and comments. Regards, Patric
Georgy Cohen says
Patrick, definitely – a person’s environment says so much about them. Thanks for the comment!
Esmeralda Gomez says
Excellent tips! I’ll add that, for those interviewees who are hesitant to open up or expound on their answers, I’ll throw an unexpected question at them, such as: what was the last book you read? What did you want to be when you grow up? What’s your idea of a dream vacation? These are usually met with a smile and get the interviewee in a more conversational mood.
Andrew Careaga says
Terrific tips and reminders, Georgy. And as a reminder of how not to conduct an interview:
Video: Chris Farley Interviews Paul McCartney (old SNL clip)
These are some really good tips. I will be conducting interviews for my blog starting next week and feel much more confident about it with these tips. Thanks!
Susan Slater says
This was very helpful. I’m interviewing a couple of people this afternoon for some blog posts, and I haven’t done this in awhile. I’m ready now! Thanks!
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arunga cheryl says
This was very helpful to a starter like me, i am a bit late to comment but i would still recommend this to anyone even five years from now. i am currently working on a page that i started some few months ago called ourkenyanvintage. it is basically to capture those untold stories of millions of people living in Kenya and having read this piece i have got insight on what direction am to take. thank you very much