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How Writers Can Prepare for the Perfect Interview

Read Time: 4 min

Now you've done it. After  years of planning and negotiating, you finally snagged an interview with that reclusive semi-celebrity. Good for you! But... uh... now what? Lining up a key interview subject (whether for an in-person or phone interview) is just the first step. There are so many things that could possibly go wrong. Sorry, but it's true! Fortunately, there's a ton of ways to prepare. And I'll even share them with you.

Do Your Homework

The most important thing about interviewing someone is doing your homework. That means reading up on the person (or brand, or company, etc.). If your interview is about their most recent work, then you better make sure to see it or at least read all sorts of reactions to it. But besides catching up on your subject's latest goings-on, do a bit more digging. Learn more about them: Where did they grow up? Where do they live now? What hobbies do they have? Any family? If they're on any social networks like Twitter or Facebook, start following them and see how they interact with their audience.

You can never ever be too prepared so do as much research about your subject as possible. That even means reading recent articles written about them by other writers. After all, it's much better to be way over-prepared than under-prepared.

Questions, Questions, Questions

Once you've thoroughly researched your subject, it's time to start compiling your questions. You probably have a standard list you use and adapt for most interviews. Good. Get those out of the way. Then add in any new ones pertaining to the recent project or your subject. All that research you just did will come in handy. Always try to come up with some fun, unique questions.

Chances are your subject's been interviewed a number of times and answered at least half of your questions already. So changing things up for him will keep him from getting bored and he'll hopefully give different and better answers this time around.

Besides listing out a slew of questions, you definitely want to put them in order. I always try to start with a few simple ones to basically ease into the interview. Put meaty/important ones closer to the top and middle, and then various others after. Make sure to put the least important near the end in case you run out of time and don't get around to asking them.

Testing, 1, 2, 3

Whether it's on the phone or in person, it's annoying but worth it to tape your interview. I always prefer a micro-cassette recorder simply because transcribing is way easier than trying with a digital recorder. I have an old transcribing machine with the foot pedals and I've just got a great rhythm going. You may find a digital recorder much better and easier to use, or maybe you send your interviews out to be transcribed. Whatever works for you is great. But the key here is that it works...

Make sure your equipment is ready. That means your batteries are charged, your tape is empty, your phone is working, etc. I always do a quick trial run before every single phone interview, where I call my voicemail and leave myself a message, taping the entire thing. Then I do a quick playback to make sure it works. There's definitely been more than a few occasions this saved my bacon!

Once you're all set, try to find as quiet a place as possible and use a land line if you can, rather than a cell. You want the best available sound quality you can get so that it makes for the smoothest conversation and easiest transcribing later on.

Make sure you have everything available now, so you're not fumbling around during the actual interview. Get an empty notebook and a few pens handy, as well as a glass of water.  I always have a printout of my questions handy too, so that I can cross each question off as I ask it. Just helps keep me focused. If there are samples on the Web you want to talk about, get those windows open now so you can quickly get to them later.

The Interview

When the interview's finally upon you, it's always good to start with some basic small talk. Again, your research could really come into play. See if there's any common interest between you and your subject. Maybe you grew up in the same town or have a mutual friend. Or maybe you just read his latest book or saw him in a movie 10 years ago. Try to mention something that's a bit out of the ordinary. Something that makes this guy realize you're not just another reporter who Googled his name and is asking some questions. In other words, show you care. Just be careful not to overdo it on the personal side or he may think you're a bit too stalkerish!

When your interview's done, try to ask if you can contact him again if you have any follow-up questions. I usually ask if they mind me following up, as well as what's the best way to follow up: phone, email, etc. Thank them for their time, wish 'em luck and you're done. It's a great idea to shoot a quick email later on just thanking them for taking the time out to talk to you.

And that's about it. Like I said, there are plenty of things that could go wrong (power failure, dog barking incessantly, you lose your tape recorder, etc.) so prepare as much as you can ahead of time. Life is certainly full of surprises, so you can't prepare for every eventuality. But arm yourself as much as you can, and hopefully the only thing you'll have to worry about is writing a strong lede when you're done.

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4 thoughts on “How Writers Can Prepare for the Perfect Interview”

  1. Definitely like your style, Andrew. 🙂 I often share my questions beforehand with the person. That’s primarily because I often need details they may not have at their fingertips. I also tend to use it as a guide and let the conversation prompt an ad lib of a question.

    This post is a keeper. 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks, Cathy! That’s a great idea too. I prefer not to do that, though, because it tends to make the interview itself a bit less spontaneous. If it’s more of a serious interview I guess I would do that, but for a lot of the entertainment-based stories I write, I’d rather get honest, off-the-cuff answers. I do tend to give the subject a general idea of what I’ll be talking about though, so they’re not caught completely off guard.

      Reply
      • I like the spontaneous, too, Andrew, and only share it when I know they need to research an answer when we need statistics. Most of my interviews are for business case studies versus article writing about that person.

        Reply

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