How To Conduct An Interview

If there's one thing I do a lot of as a writer, it's interviews. Internet and library research is great, but if you really want the knitty-gritty on a topic, you've got to talk to the experts.

Here's the problem: believe it or not (believe it), I'm an introvert. I start shaking in my boots when I have to go to a meeting, talk to strangers on the phone, or introduce myself to new people.

But, crazily enough, conducting interviews has become one of my favorite parts of the job. I'm not going to lie, my stomach still does a few flip flops right before I dial the number, but during the interview I end up having tons of fun. I think it's because I don't have to talk much, I get to ask a few questions and listen, listen, listen.

So is there a trick to having great interviews? Well, yes and no. It's not a trick, per say, but more of a tried and true technique.

Here's how it goes down:

Find the right person to interview.

Depending on the type of article you're writing, this can be either the easiest part or the hardest part of the process. If you've been assigned a project from the client, chances are good that they have a list of people they want you to interview. For instance, for a case study or customer success story, your client will have the information you need to get in touch with your interview subject.

On the other hand, if you're working on an article idea to pitch to a business or publication, you've got to do all the legwork to find the right experts to interview. Once you've sold the article, your publisher or client may give you a few leads on other experts, but for the most part it's up to you.

One good place to find solid interview subjects are through association pages. For instance, if you're writing an article about childhood obesity, you could start with the American Academy of Pediatrics or the Obesity Society. Often associations include lists of members on their website, or, if not, you can contact an association staff member to put you in touch with the right people.

Before the interview, be sure to do background research on your subjects so you have an idea of who you're talking to. LinkedIn, online bios, and Twitter are all good places to start.

Setup the interview.

Once you've found your subject, send them a polite email to set up a time to chat. Something like this should work:

Dear John,
I got your name from the American Academy of Pediatrics. I'm a freelance writer covering childhood obesity (you can see some of my work in my online portfolio), and I wondered if you would be interested in a brief interview for an article I'm working on. I'm available between noon to 3pm CST Monday through Friday. I've you're interested, please let me know if there is a time that works best for you.
Whitney Cole

If you don't hear back right away, don't feel bad sending a followup email. I also always ask if I can record the interview once the interviewee responds. Let them know the recording is for transcription purposes only, and most people are comfortable with being recorded.

Prepare your interview questions.

Spend some time thinking about the theme you want your interview to follow. Hopefully by this point you've done preliminary research on your topic, so you don't sound like a moron during the interview. What types of information are you looking for? Are there any specific questions you need answered?

Your first questions should be housekeeping questions about the subject's preferred name, title, and background or credentials. Then come up with who, what, where, when, why, and how questions that align with your topic. Be prepared, however, to change those questions during the actual interview if you find they're not taking you the right direction.

Conduct the interview.

Start on time

This may seem obvious, but start the interview on time. Respect your subject's time. Even though I always call right on time, I ask "Is this still a good time?" Something may have come up on the interviewee's end, and I'd rather reschedule the interview than feel rushed or like I'm frustrating the interview subject.


Once you've got the interviewee on the phone, ask again if it's okay to record the call. I don't start recording until after I've received their permission, and once I've started the recording, I always say something to the effect of "This call is now being recorded." Every state's laws vary when it comes to call recording, so be sure to check your state's laws to make sure you are legal.

You can have all kinds of fancy recording devices, but I've found two simple solutions that work well for me. Google Voice allows you to record incoming calls (once you hit record, an automated voice will notify you and the interviewee that the call is being recorded). The only problem with this is that outgoing calls can't be recorded. If your interview subject is calling you, Google Voice works well. I prefer to be the one dialing the number so I have more control over starting on time and that the interview actually happens, however, so I've found another way that works.

If you have a Mac (or probably Windows, for that matter), you've already got a recording app on your computer. Before the call, I open QuickTime and open a new audio recording. During the call, I put my phone on speaker with the volume turned up. So far, the audio quality has been decent, and I can record outgoing calls.

Listen, listen, listen

You're not doing this interview to hear yourself talk. Keep your directions short and too the point, and then shut up. Even when those awkward silences happen, don't talk. The more you listen, the more information you'll gather.

If your interviewee is knowledgable on your topic, you probably won't be able to shut them up--that's a good thing. If necessary, though, it's okay to butt in if you need to redirect the conversation.

End the interview on time.

Once you've gotten through your questions (or even if you haven't), it's still important to respect the interviewee's time. If you do need to go over the alloted time, ask them if it's okay to continue.

Follow up.

After the interview, send a thank you email letting them know you appreciated the chance to talk to them. Once your article is published, be sure to send it their way.

I'm sure I'm forgetting something about interviewing well. But for now this will have to do. Is there anything you would add?