If you want to write articles and features, you’ll have to interview people. They may be experts, such as health or business experts, or ordinary people, either to present points of view from the general public, or as case studies to illustrate a ‘real life’ behind the subject you’re writing about. Here are 5 mistakes newer writers make when it comes to interviewing, by writing advisor Alex Gazzola.
#1: Calling it an interview
Experts are used to being interviewed, but ordinary people may not be. An ‘interview’ can be a terrifying thing. Just the word itself. How can you make it less intimidating?
Call it a ‘chat’. Call it anything but an ‘interview’. You will get the most out of your interviewees — chatees? — if you avoid the i-word entirely. If fact, it’s useful to abandon formality altogether:
“Good evening. My name is Alex Gazzola, I’m a journalist with The Times.”
“Hi! I’m Alex, a writer.”
Which of the two is more friendly and less intimidating?
When you approach people or find people and need to talk to them, the first thing to do is to put them at ease.
If you’re meeting in person, don’t dress as if for an interview. And smile! Be nice. Accept a coffee even if you don’t want one. Don’t whip out your tape recorder straight away. Put yourself in your chattee’s shoes …
#2: Preparing your Qs, but not your As.
By which I mean your Aims. What do you wish to achieve by the end of the interview?
The questions you ask are important, and most writers prepare at least some in advance. If you are interviewing in person rather than on the telephone, it’s still OK to have these in front of you. Notes are allowed!
But in preparing questions there is a danger you become constrained by them, and you may forget a key question you later come to realise you should have asked.
Instead of focusing solely on what you wish to ask, think of what your aims are for the interview. What do you hope to gain from it? Is it a revelation? Is it a particular soundbite? Is it a confirmation of what you think — or is it a challenge to what you think? Is it a detailed account of the interviewee’s experience? What do you want to ultimately come away with? What do you need to come away with?
Once you know this, you may realise that you essentially have just one goal, and you should remind yourself during the interview that this is the point you must reach. Questions you ask will get you there, but even if you forget some or find yourself running out of time, it won’t matter as much as you fear if you manage to achieve that single core aim.
#3: Putting the interviewee first
“The most important thing was to write a piece that my interviewee would be completely happy with,” was what a writer told a colleague of mine once, regarding a sculptor she was profiling for an arts journal.
I couldn’t help feeling this was a mistake.
As a writer, your first duty is to your reader — not to your subject.
When you interview someone, your approach should be to ask questions to which you think your reader will want answers — not necessarily questions which the interviewee may want to be asked and which might allow them to portray themselves in a perfect light.
They may be old and frail; they may be sweet and gentle; they may be offering you tea and a Mr Kipling cake. I’m afraid it doesn’t matter — not even if it’s a Viennese Whirl. What you can’t do is to shy from questions that need to be asked.
If, for instance, your interviewee’s work has been criticised, then you should address this — for example, by asking how the criticism made them feel or how they dealt with it.
Ask several ‘nice’ questions, by all means — then ask the odd tougher question too.
But asking questions isn’t enough. You need to incorporate answers into your piece. If you catch yourself editing or omitting material because your subject might be upset by it, then you’re in trouble …
#4: Keeping going when the going’s not good …
Interviews do not always go smoothly.
You may realise it was a mistake to interview someone, because he or she won’t meet the needs of your article, doesn’t have the information you require, or is just somehow wrong.
This is a difficult situation to handle. You have to be honest. It can help if you explain beforehand that the interviewee’s contribution may not be included. Understanding that there is no guarantee makes it easier for the interviewee and can give you a get-out clause if there’s a problem.
Another problem is the recalcitrant interviewee, who doesn’t seem to want to answer questions. There may be valid reasons for defensiveness, but you shouldn’t back off from asking what you want to ask.
You could try adopting a softer approach, or asking whether something is the matter. It’s a judgment call.
If you’re confident, and have made unsuccessful attempts to remedy the issue, then move to wrap up the interview. If you’re on the phone, thank them for their time. If you’re in person, start to gather up your things. You’d be amazed how often this can shake someone out of their intransigence.
Have the confidence to know when something can’t be saved. If you’ve not made promises ahead of the interview, you won’t be breaking any.
#5: Worrying about what interviewees will think of you …
It’s easy to feel self-conscious, especially with an expert. If you’re concerned about coming across as foolish or ignorant, you can frame questions in a way that puts the focus on the eventual reader, such as ‘How would you explain x to a complete beginner?’ or ‘What’s the most important point about y that the public need to understand?’
But so what if you’ve asked a silly question? You live and you learn! And you won’t ask it again …
(c) Alex Gazzola
About 50 Mistakes Writers Make:
The third book in the Mistakes Writers Make series takes the reader to the next level on the non-fiction writing journey, building on your early successes by equipping you with the skills, approach and attitude you need to make a living freelance writing for the internet, magazines and newspapers. It covers article ideas, negotiating with editors, interviewing skills, financial issues, words and punctuation, even psychological wellbeing — and much more. All of the advice is given through the prism of error, on the basis that mistakes are inevitable, good, educational — and yet can be overcome. This helpful, friendly, and sometimes amusing guide should equip you with everything you need to sell your work regularly and turn freelance writing into a realistic career.
Order your copy online here.