The Art of the Interview

I should sit down one day and calculate how many people I’ve interviewed in the last nine years. It would be a large number.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Raymond King before he died. From the comfort of his La-Z-Boy recliner, he talked to me for thirty minutes about his life and his philosophy of giving back to the community. After the interview was over, he pushed himself up with a groan, grabbed his cane, and asked me to follow him into the back yard. He struggled to raise a garage door revealing an antique car—his pride and joy. He told me all about it. I have a soft place in my heart for sweet, old men, and so that day stands out in my mind.

Interviewing

I also think back to an interview with US Senator Lamar Alexander. He and I talked about nuclear power. I forgot I was working. I was so interested in the topic and in what Senator Alexander had to say, that I entered into a personal conversation with him. I wrote that article in record time.

I love those moments when I make an instant connection with the person I am interviewing. I love to see the world through their eyes, if even for just a moment. I had that experience when I interviewed the History Channel’s survivor superstar, Alan Kay, two weeks ago. I lobbed a beautiful question for Kay, and he knocked it out of the park.

I said, “I’ve heard that servicemen returning from combat often find it difficult to assimilate back into their routine lives when they return from a combat zone. After your fifty-six days alone on Vancouver Island, did you find it difficult to return home?”

There was a pause, and then Kay gave me what I was looking for. He talked about how his experience had deepened his awareness of life and purpose, and how he wanted to scream warnings to humanity when he returned. I can’t share his specific answer because the article won’t be published until October (Get Out Chattanooga Magazine), but Kay’s response was writer’s gold.

Here are some general tips for getting the most out of an interview.

  1. Do Your Research. Before you talk to the person you are interviewing, do some general research and draft a few warm up questions from your research.
  2. Minimize Yes or No Questions. I always try to form my questions so that the person will give me lots of meat on the bone. For example, instead of asking, “Did you enjoy your experience on Vancouver Island?” I asked, “What were two of the most memorable moments during your time on Vancouver Island?” Asking more open-ended questions will allow the person to elaborate beyond a simple yes or no answer.
  3. Make a Connection. Find common ground with the person you are interviewing and build from that common ground. For example, I recently interviewed volunteers who rescue dogs from a local shelter. After the introductions, I said, “I’m excited about writing this article. I love dogs, and in the past, I, too, have been involved with animal rescue.” Their faces lit up, and they opened up to me.
  4. Ask for the Story. Depending on who I am interviewing, I often have a lot of success asking the person, “So what’s the story here? Why should readers care?” I get lots of interesting responses to this question. I also ask them to tell me about a particular event or experience that can lead into the story—an anecdote—that will draw my readers in.
  5. Ask Followup Questions. Sometimes when a person has a really great answer to a question, I say, “Tell me a little more about that. Give me more detail.”
  6. Send Questions in Advance. Sometimes, I send my questions in advance. This allows people to check details and think about what they want to say and how they want to say it. I never send them all of my questions, but I send a few so that they won’t feel anxious about talking to me.
  7. Mine for Different Angles. I don’t want my article to sound like other articles, and so I often look for different approaches. As I was preparing to interview survivalist Alan Kay, I read many articles that other writers had already published. I was determined to present “a different story,” and so I focused on Kay’s survival tips and the psychological toll that living off the land in total isolation for fifty-six days took on him, and how he kept his sanity. My article is different than the other content, and that’s a good thing.

There are other tips writers use to get the most out of interviews. I invite you to leave a comment telling me what works best for you. As always, I appreciate your stopping by my website.

2 thoughts on “The Art of the Interview

  1. I loved Raymond King. He and his wife, Pearl were long time family friends. They were both wonderful people who loved their community. Good stuff here, Amber.

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