Ways to Generate Great Interview Questions

8 Tips for Uncovering a Great Story

Close-up of the hands and torsos of two people doing an interview
••• Sofie Delauw / Getty Images

The interview questions you ask your interviewee can make or break your magazine article. While you might be able to wing a few good questions on the spot, you're guaranteed to miss out on some key aspects of the story if you don't come prepared to probe.

Here are eight things to keep in mind as you write and ask your interview questions.

Prepare Ahead of Time

Never go in cold. You have to do your research and be fully prepared in advance, so you know your subject well enough to raise the right questions. This doesn't mean you must only stick to the questions you've prepared, but it's important to have a prepared list nonetheless. Your prep work will be the foundation for your interview.

Set the Tone

Simply put, funny questions result in light-hearted, humorous interviews and inspiring questions result in inspiring interviews. What final product do you have in mind? What's the nature of the story? What tone is your editor is looking for? Communication is key, so you need to ask what your editor is expecting from you. Keep this in mind as you prepare every question because tone is subliminal and often hard to nail down.

Let Your Curiosity Lead You

Pretend that you are the reader and ask yourself what it is that you want to know about this person, their career, their childhood, their obstacles, their favorite project, their biggest accomplishment. Let your curiosity lead you from this entry point.

Go Ahead and Google

We all go to the same place to launch our research. What is important is where you end up. As long as you don't plagiarize and research with a discerning eye (i.e., you look for primary sources for verification), it is fine to Google and YouTube your subject. This will help you learn what's already been covered, and what lesser-known information you might be able to home in on during your interview.

Avoid Clichés

Avoid the obvious that doesn't provide something new for the reader. If the famous actor you're interviewing always wanted to be a famous actor, that is not an intriguing piece of information. Instead, ask if they experienced any internal conflicts when making the decision to become an actor—if, say, the performer came from a family of doctors. If you must ask if they always wanted to be an actor, just rephrase the question in a manner that will elicit more compelling information from them.

Avoid Yes-Or-No Answers

If you want very little material to work with, ask questions that invite a simple yes or no answer. In the more likely event that you'd rather have some interesting quotes, ask open-ended questions that will get your subject talking, reminiscing, or expounding on the topic. If you must ask a yes-or-no question, be prepared with follow-up questions to both responses. 

Go to the Source

When you're interviewing an author, writer, producer, blogger, artist, or another expert who has produced a commercial product such as a film or book, by all means, go see the film or read the book. You need to know what you're dealing with. It's never pleasant to get caught asking the question to which you should know the answer if you'd read up.

Ask the Editor

Another option is to ask your editor, but that doesn't mean they should come up with the questions. It's not their job to do your work for you. That said, it's a good idea to get a feel for what kind of story they're looking for and to ask if there any questions they would like added to your list.

Of course, be as relaxed as possible when you conduct your interview to ensure your interviewee is comfortable, and therefore, open to your inquiries. Carefully consider your subject's words and stories, and be alert should they go off on a tangent. If so, follow along if it's interesting, or get them back on track if it isn't. Look for any kind of emotional connection you can forge with the other person that will make it easier for them to speak candidly, and ultimately, contribute to a solid article.