Get It Right Before You Write: 6 Tips For Productive Interviewing

March 3, 2014


The best human interest stories start with strategic interviewing by the writer. And strategic interviews start long before you ask the first question.  Preparation, well-crafted interview questions and intuition during the interview create the foundation for content people want to read. I want to show you six tactics that make the difference between writing an engaging article with depth versus one that lacks interest and insight.


    1. Take care of      the nitty gritties ahead of time. Everyone is busy so whatever research you can      complete  ahead of time reserves  precious  minutes for more important      questions. Don’t waste your interviewee’s time asking , “What is your      title?” or “How long have you been with the company?” You      can usually find these answers online or from an administrative      assistant.  If the interviewee works      for a public entity, check the web for meeting minutes and other public documents which may provide basic information about the person’s job,      activities and viewpoints.  Linked      In is also a helpful source of information.
    2. Spy the      surroundings. If      your interview is in person, look around the reception area or office for      important clues. Does your interviewee have a collection of arrowheads or      a stack of vintage comic books on display? Does the collection of auto      enthusiast magazines say something contradictory about the chef or fashion  enthusiast you are about to interview? The physical surroundings may tell      you much about your interviewee and provide colorful material for the piece you’re writing.
    3. Have an idea  of your angle ahead of time but be flexible. You may go into the interview with an idea      about  the angle or the hook of your      piece, but be flexible and listen for other interesting options. For      example, I interviewed a couple focusing on their travels around the      world. During the interview, they mentioned learning that their daughter      had anorexia while on one of their trips. I switched the focus of my story      to how parents handle a child’s eating disorders which made for a more      interesting piece.
    4. Let them      have “talk”. Knowing when to control the flow of questions is a practiced art.      Sometimes it’s best to keep a rambling interviewee on target by bringing      them back to the original question or changing to a new one. But be      flexible. If the flow of conversation reveals interesting information even      though it’s beyond the scope of your question, you may want to follow him      or her on that rabbit trail. However, don’t be afraid to keep the      interview on track by steering the conversation in the direction you want      it to go.
    5. Keep your      ends open.   You’ve heard it before but it’s an      important point to repeat: Ask open ended questions. And ask questions      that go beyond the facts. Ask questions that will help you to      “show” and not just tell when you write the story: “How did      you feel when________.” And, “Do you remember what you were      wearing?” Or, “What was the weather like when you      ________?” These questions will help you to write in a way that draws      the reader into the scene or event.
    6. Empathize  but don’t rule.   Some interviewers would say never speak of yourself or      your experiences during an interview because the purpose is to get to know      the interviewee.  But some people      are shy or reluctant to share information. In this case, sharing snippets      of your life  relative to the      interview topic or identifying with the interviewee can be helpful  in drawing them out. This approach      should be used judiciously because the interview is about them, not you.

What other strategies would you suggest for productive interviewing?

(Originally appeared on Alicea Jones Writing Services blog)




  1. Emmanuel

    I like the narratives of this article. It will help me to prepare the venue and those appropriate things that make the interviewee feel more comfortable before the actual interview.

    • Alicea Jones

      Thank you for your comments, Emmanuel. I’m glad the interviewing tips were helpful.

  2. Emmanuel

    This article will help set up the venue and those things that will make the interviewee comfortable before the actual interview takes place.

  3. Shelly Whitehead

    These are great points, Alecia. I would, however, say that it’s important to confirm information about name, title and duties because you simply never know when the information you’ve previously obtained from other sources is incorrect. I think it’s also important to warm people up with some basic genial conversation for a few minutes before launching into the questions you’re seeking information about to create your story. Thanks for this topic — it IS the basis of great storytelling.

    • Alicea Jones

      Yes, you’re right Shelly. Confirming information and warming up the interviewee are important steps for a successful interview. Thanks for mentioning these points.

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