How To Conduct an Interview
Determine Your Subject
If your article didn't come with a subject pre-assigned (such as for a profile), then it's your responsibility to determine the most appropriate subject. Here's how to get headed in the right direction when determining what kind of subject to interview.
First, you'll need to line your assignment up with the kind of interviewee you want. Is this a light-hearted piece? A business magazine? Figuring out the slant of your publication and article determines the direction you're going to go in finding the right subject.
Next, you'll need to determine how much of the article will be based on the interview. For example, if you're looking for a few juicy quotes, the field is wide open. But, if this article is almost exclusively about the interviewee, you'll be much more careful about who you choose.
This is also the place where you will carefully consider any comments from your editor on the piece. Much of the time, an accepted query will come with an email exchange talking about parameters and tone. Keep these in mind as you set out on your subject search.
Find Your Interviewee
It's likely that you know your article's field very well, or you probably wouldn't have gotten the assignment. Therefore, it's time to put that knowledge to work. Poke around your networks to find out who an accepted authority in the matter is. Speak with committees, elected positions in the field, professional organizations or alumni associations.
Or, you may want to think more socially, especially for lifestyle pieces. Your online friends or your local community may be good choices here. Find out who is buzzing about whom. When you say "your article's subject" who do people name?
Of course, hitting Google is a viable option, as long as you have the ability to determine appropriate sources of information.
Last, if all else fails, ask your editor for direction. They may have someone in mind that they'd love to see on their pages.
Some of you more nervous folk are going to love this: sometimes editors don't mind if you conduct interviews via email or phone. You may not have to go face to face!
However, it's important to realize you lose a lot of character in a phone or email interview, and, whenever possible, a writer should try to meet with the subject.
When it's time to ask for the interview, give your subject some options regarding the where and the how (unless, for example, they're halfway across the world). This is because different mediums work differently for each person. For example, in an email interview, you're putting a lot of onus on the work on your subject—making them do much of your work, in fact! Sure, some busy execs might love the flexibility of email, but others will be put off by this.
Even if you do decide to conduct a phone or in-person interview, email is a good initial way to set up your schedule.
Set Up a Good Time
Really, you'll need to throw this ball in their court, since they are, in essence, doing you a favor. However, keep a few things in mind.
If you're interviewing over the phone, you'll want an absolutely quiet home or office. If you send an interview email, make sure you're online and available to answer any questions within 24 hours. Of course, in-person interviews require that you be completely relaxed, on time and ready to interact. Think about the time of day when you're on top of your game, and schedule accordingly.
Record the Interview
Recording the interview is a necessity. You can record over the phone with a digital recording device such as the Olympus TP-8 Telephone Pick-up Microphone.
Even if you're recording, you must remember to take enough notes to get by in case of a technological failure. A good idea is to take one page per question, and don't forget several writing instruments!
Conduct the Interview
You must go into the interview with complete confidence. One virtual writing group believes in "fake it 'til you make it." Try it. If this is your first or second interview, your subject need not know. The way you present yourself (as an old hat professional, for example) will be the way you're perceived. You can do this.
As for the actual process of speaking with your subject, begin with some small talk. Comment on their cozy office or that great piece of art on their wall. Keep in mind that most people enjoy talking about themselves, so this will likely become a pleasant interaction.
A couple caveats: it is easy to ask leading questions or clarifications. Avoid digging for the answers you want to hear. Another common mistake is interrupting. Quiet down after you ask the question, and keep quiet as long as possible. Determine ahead of time that you're going to let your subject finish complete thoughts, and that you're going to let him or her fill those awkward silences.
Do not pass go, do not collect 200 bucks—just go write. Getting the interview down while it's fresh in your mind is going to do wonders for your piece. In addition, you'll note any technical issues with your recording immediately, and will still be able to rely on the old-fashioned technology in your head—your memory.
You don't need to write your entire story in this sitting and you probably won't be up to it, especially if this is your first or second interview. However, do get a rough outline down and accurately record your favorite quotes and some general observations.
Check the Facts
One important step in this process is to check the facts afterward. It's likely that your subject didn't tell you untruths, but in the process of doing things on the fly, like interviews, some things may be inaccurate. This is your responsibility, even if your magazine has fact-checkers on staff. You need to turn in the best piece you can.
Immediately after the interview, get a handwritten thank you note out to your subject. They've given some of their time to indirectly help your career, so be sure to express gratitude.
Once the piece has been written, it is generally not necessary (or even a good idea) to allow them to see it ahead of time. Instead, send a copy of the magazine after it goes to press, along with another short note.