Interviews: Put Yourself in Their Place

Interviews are a key component of research for nonfiction writing projects. They can also be one of the most challenging. I was reminded of that at a recent interview where, no matter what I asked, the person never gave a straight answer. Mostly he complained about how people weren’t supporting his work, spoke in jargon that only people in his field would understand and tried to control the interview by telling me what to write. This is not unusual. We show up with our notebooks and recorders, hoping to get straight answers, but it doesn’t always happen.

Some people are great interview subjects. Ask them a question and they answer at length in wonderful quotable statements that provide just what you’re looking for. Others don’t have much to say, or what they say is not helpful to what you’re writing.

Before you decide they’re just no good, think about how you would feel if you were the one being interviewed. Having been on both sides of the notebook, I know that it’s a lot more uncomfortable than one would expect. Imagine yourself being asked questions, often questions that are based on wrong assumptions, and having someone write down every word you say. Some people are used to being interviewed, but most of us will feel at least a little stage fright.

What to do? Do your best to relax the person. It should be more like a friendly conversation than an inquisition.  Make sure your questions are clear and that you have the facts as straight as you can when you arrive. If you don’t understand something, be honest about it. Ask their help in clearing things up. Also, let them talk. Don’t be so agenda-bound that you don’t take time to listen. You might not use everything they say, but let them say what they want to say. Allow enough time, so you don’t have to rush.

In an interview, you both have an agenda. The subject wants publicity (or to satisfy a friend/boss/co-worker who does), and he wants someone to hear what he has to say. You want a good story. Looking at both sides and empathizing with the subject will help you come up with an interview that works for both of you.

I welcome your questions and comments.

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