Twenty-five Steps to a Good Interview
By Russell Chandler
Editor's note: This article came from a workshop that Russell Chandler gave at the 1992 Evangelical Press Association meetings.
1. Interview in person or on the telephone? If convenient, it's best to do it in person. Then you can catch the essence of the person in their surroundings and home.
2. Call ahead for an appointment and indicate your publication. If you're a freelancer, then say so when scheduling the interview. Don't underestimate the time you'll need for the interview.
Where will you meet? Their home? Their office? I prefer a neutral location. It helps set the person at ease and cuts down on interruptions. I dislike using restaurants since taping is impossible. If you do interview at a restaurant, be prepared to pay.
Is your interview an exclusive or will it be shared with others? Find out ahead of time so you are not surprised.
3. Before the interview, know as much as possible about the person. Have a current bio sheet sent to you ahead of time.
4. Cultivate a relaxed atmosphere.
5. When you first arrive, utilize the informal moments to gather impressions--atmosphere of the house, details like flowers or cars in the driveway. Pay your subject a sincere compliment to set the person at ease from the beginning.
6. To tape or not to tape. In a number of states, the law requires that the subject knows you are taping. If it is a sensitive interview, you will want to keep that tape for your records.
Always inform the person, asking, "If it's all right with you, I'm going to tape this conversation because you may be speaking faster than I can write. I want to make sure it's right."
If you record the interview, also take notes since nothing is failproof.
7. On or off the record? I assume it is on the record, unless the person says that it is not. I prefer not to go off the record. When part is on and part is off, I mark my notes clearly.
8. Prepare your questions before the interview. Write out a short list but don't show the questions to your subject. The only exception is when you have to interview through the mail or email. Some times this is the only way to get the information. You can also interview by tape. Send a tape with the questions and get tape recorded answers from the person.
If sharing the interview with a competing publication, try to get a portion where you ask your questions in private.
9. Begin with the non-threatening, non-emotional topics. Usually this means you will begin with something about their life background. I check the information from their bio and the clips to see if there are any gross errors of fact.
10. Then move the interview to the person's achievements, ideas and beliefs. You will begin to ask and talk about areas which are more conceptual.
11. Catch the uniqueness, the mannerisms, and the feelings of the person. That's why interviewing in person better than on the phone.
12. Observe the person's features. Good stories will include this information in the article.
13. Let the person reminisce, but if time is limited, be aware that you may have to interrupt. The more limited your time, the more you have to keep the interview on track.
14. Here's some techniques to get people talking: "Tell me about..." Or "Did you ever..." Or "How did you feel when..." If you need to play the devil's advocate, instead of direct confrontation say, "Suppose a critic were to say..."
15. Know your market for the article. What would your readers ask? What would they sense and hear?
16. At the end of the interview, lay down your pen, turn off your laptop computer and have a little chat. This is where they may remember things they haven't before. Provided they aren't spooked, it's all right to open up your notebook and take more notes.
17. Use the feedback principle to restate the views of the person. Sometimes I'm not sure what they are after. "In other words, your theory is..." Sometimes I want them to say it better than they have but don't want to ask them directly. I use phrases like, "What I hear you saying is..."
18. Don't allow yourself to become the subject and tell your life story. When the subject says, "Tell me about yourself...," use something like, "The reason, I'm here is to talk with you."
19. Do you send a copy of your story to the subject beforehand? You may have to. I agree to send it after publication--and only if they ask for it.
20. I agree to check all direct quotes or factual matters, but I don't agree to their editing my story. An exception is when your publisher has already made such an agreement before the interview.
21. Ask ahead of time to call back for clarification or additional input. This paves the way for any possible gaps from your interview. Stress that you want to be careful and accurate.
22. Anticipate any possible objections and opposition to your story but go in with an open mind.
23. Don't argue or try to prove the interviewee wrong. This is not the forum for that. If the article is to include opposite views, tell the person that you're looking for diversity of views.
24. If your interview is refused, you can simply say, "Thank you anyway and that's that." Or "Thank you. But if you don't mind, I'll check with you again in a month. Or "The story will be more balanced and fair if your views are represented. I wanted to hear your side. Are you sure that you won't change your mind?" Or in a hard ball approach, "I'm writing the story anyway, so it will be a better story if your views are included?"
Ask if they will answer written questions. Or would they be willing to give a 15-minute phone interview or do it by tape?
25. Be genuinely interested in the other person. Thank them for the interview. They've given of their time about themselves. Remind them of the publication and the date. Make arrangements for the photos.
Russell Chandler was a religion writer for the Los Angeles Times and is now retired and living in Sonora, California.
Used with Permission Copyright 2004 Russell Chandler