Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Art of the Interview

Riding home on the EL last night, I was approached by a young Northwestern student wanting to interview me for an article he was writing for his journalism class. Even though I was looking forward to reading a book on the hour-long train ride, I agreed, wanting to help out a newbie writer in any way that I could. He began by asking me my full name, age, place of residence, etc. before moving into some controversial questions about the situation in Iraq. Never ashamed to voice my political opinion, I answered his questions honestly. But as the interview went on, I couldn't help but feel some disconnect, that something was off. And then I realized what it was: his interview style. He asked a lot of yes/no questions, didn't respond to my answers with follow up questions, he was even reading his questions off a pre-printed list. And although I was tempted to give him a few words of wisdom, I kept my mouth shut.

Greg Kot, rock critic for the Chicago Tribune and contributor for Rolling Stone, once told me that interviews should feel like a conversation. When I began freelancing, I was always anxious about interviewing subjects, but I kept his words in mind and hoped that everything would go okay. Prior to meeting with the person I was interviewing, I would dig up as much information as I could so I could talk with them intelligently and ask productive questions. Even though I would prepare some questions prior to the interview, by list would usually be thrown out the window, because our conversation, not interview, would take on a life of it's own.

So although I didn't preach to the Northwestern student, I thought I'd share a few interview tips with everyone. I'm sure I'll miss at least a hundred so feel free to comment with pearls of your own.

1) Don't ask yes or no questions. Seems like common sense right? But believe me, it's hard not to. You want to ask questions that spur on answers. Yes/no questions don't do that. Instead of asking, "Did you enjoy working with so-and-so?" ask "How did it feel to work with so-and-so?"
2) Know your subjects. Before an interview, I always Google the person I'm interviewing. If they have a website, I peruse it. If they wrote a book, I read it (at least the excerpt on Amazon). My first real interview was Shannon Blowtorch, dancer with goth band All The Pretty Horses. I had never heard of her or the band, but I made sure I had listened to their tracks and knew her bio before giving her a call.
3) Think on your feet. Although I said you should research your clients, it sometimes comes back to bite you in the ass. I was assigned to interview Nikki Weiss and Carole Antouri, agent and make-up artist who made a pilot about the Baton. But when I googled, up popped all these articles about gay adoption advocates. Fortunately, there were photos so I knew when I got to their door that it was a different Nikki and Carole. But a lot of my prepared questions focused around adoption. Too many times, you'll be thrown for a loop and have to be prepared to respond. Interviews take on lives of their own and if you can't think fast, you may not have enough material for your piece.
4) Have a back-up plan. There have been too many times where my tape recorder has failed me or my Internet was down to not have some sort of back up plan. Even if you're recording, always take notes as well. If you have scheduled an e-mail or chat interview, have the person's phone number as well, just in case. Also, don't wait until the last minute. Often I'm writing on tight deadlines and something comes up where the person I'm supposed to interview isn't available. Always give yourself an out. Don't schedule an interview the day before an article is due.
5) Be both friendly and professional. You want your subjects to be at ease when they talk to you and often times that means being friendly and trying to break down the barrier of subject/interviewer. However, you can't lose your professionalism in the meantime. It's easy to get on tangents and want to discuss your personal life. After all, the person you're interviewing is telling you everything. But you have to keep a certain distance to remain neutral. Also, after an interview, always e-mail the subject to thank them for talking to you. I usually give them a call when the article comes out to congratulate them on the press and make sure that they were happy with the piece.

Interviewing is honestly my favorite part of freelancing. I get the chance to meet interesting people that often times I would never have met otherwise. The quality of your article is directly related to the quality of your interviews, and, as with everything, practice makes perfect. Hopefully this tips are helpful; maybe I should pass them along to the folks at Medill...

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