Going into an interview can be terrifying, whether you’re dialing a phone or walking into the room where you’re meeting in person.
But interviewing sources doesn’t have to be intimidating.
Whether you’re looking to build a good rapport to write a feature about someone, or you’re looking to gather some hard facts to incorporate into a science research article, you’ll find conducting good interviews is key to collecting the information you need.
Follow these tips to get ready for and ace your next interview.
1. Do your homework
I’ve written about everything from beekeeping to golf course management to mango merchandising. While I’m not an expert in these areas, I’ve been able to collect the information I need for articles by interviewing subject-matter experts in these fields.
But I don’t just go into an interview blind. I always do my research ahead of time so I can ask the right questions.
Before you interview someone, take some time to do some research. Learn about the person you’re interviewing and the field you’re writing about.
If the expert you’re interviewing recently received an industry award, congratulate him or him for it early in the conversation. Not only do people love to receive accolades, but pointing out their industry award will demonstrate you’ve done your research.
2. Learn the lingo
One of the best ways to communicate with your sources is to learn a bit of the lingo in their field.
While you don’t have to study for hours or have a “cheat sheet” of terms, it makes sense to at least learn some common industry phrases and be able to incorporate them into your questions.
If you’re writing about water quality, learn some of the things scientists test for before interviewing them. Know what pH and turbidity are, as well as various contaminants that scientists test in water. Learn a little bit about how water is tested beforehand so you can have the tools and knowledge to ask well-informed questions about these procedures.
3. Prepare for in-person interviews
When you have a phone interview scheduled, you can wear the sweatshirt you haven’t washed in a week and slippers with Cheerios stuck to them. No one will know or care. But when you’re meeting a source in-person, it’s important to make a good impression.
Dress the part, be professional, and be friendly.
Take a few minutes and greet the person and make a little small talk. Discuss the weather if you need to, but break the ice somehow instead of just diving into your list of questions.
Make good eye and smile when you’re talking to the person. Practice not looking down at what you’re writing. The more eye you make, the more likely the person is to feel relaxed.
Being interviewed can be just as stressful as conducting an interview, so make sure to do what you can to put the person at ease.
4. Bring the right tools, and have back-ups
When I’m meeting someone in person, I double check I have all the tools I need. I can’t go to my supply stash to grab extras if I run out.
Since I hand-write my notes at in-person interviews, I always make sure I have enough pages in my notebook (way more than I think I’ll ever need) as well as a handful of pens in my bag.
I always have two pens out when I’m interviewing someone so if one runs out of ink, I can grab the other without missing a beat. If you’re recording on a smartphone app or mini recorder, be sure to have fully charged batteries (and a few extras).
A few weeks ago, I was in the middle of a phone interview, typing notes on my computer when the dreaded “blue screen of death” appeared. I panicked for a second, but then I quickly grabbed the notebook and pen I had handy and commenced taking handwritten notes while I booted up my backup computer.
It’s okay to be honest with someone and tell them you’re having computer issues and ask them if you can call back in a little while, but if you can avoid the situation altogether by jumping directly to your backups, that’s even better. Then you won’t have to reschedule and cram another interview into your already-packed day.
5. Take good notes
If your notes aren’t thorough and accurate, that’s a huge problem. Take notes in person with a notepad and pen or, if you’re conducting a phone interview, type away on your laptop.
But be sure to record the notes as well. Use a recording tool such as a smartphone app or a digital voice recorder to record the conversation, whether in person or on the phone. Let the interviewee know you’re recording and confirm they’re OK with it. Many places have laws saying you can’t record people without their knowledge and consent.
6. Transcribe your notes ASAP
If you wait a few weeks after an interview to look at your notes, they may just look like jumbled scribbles. You might rack your brain to try and remember how the conversation went, but you can save this headache by transcribing your notes right away.
This will also prevent the dreaded scene where you spill your coffee on your hard-copy notes or they get lost. I try to type my notes within 24 hours of an interview while my brain’s still fresh and remembering the conversation.
Not only does this help me get the information down, but it also allows me to backup the notes to a flash drive and to the cloud (I use Dropbox). If the unthinkable happens to my computer, flash drive, or even my whole house, I’ll have a copy of those notes out there somewhere to revisit.
7. Build relationships with sources
After your interview, thank the source for their time. When the publication comes out, send them a link or a copy. If you write about the publication on social media, tag them in your post. Let them know you appreciate their time and expertise.
It’s important to think of interviewees not just as “one-off” sources that you will talk to once and completely forget about. They’re a key part of your “reporter Rolodex” and might be useful sources in the future. Ask them to keep you informed about their research or current happenings in their company and you might just end up with a great lead on a future story.
And if you head to an industry conference and see them there, be sure to say hello and catch up. Don’t be a pest, but be a friendly colleague, since this person may also be a great for the future.
What are your tips for conducting great source interviews? Share them in the comments!