(Adapted from a 1997 presentation)
Q: How should I prepare for an interview?
A: Do your homework. Have an idea in advance what you hope to get out of the interview -- although good interviews often reveal things you didn't expect. Be ready to listen for answers that open your eyes to questions you hadn't planned to ask.
Q: What should I do first?
A: At the start of every interview, you should ask, "May I record this interview for possible use on the air or on the Internet?" -- even if you don't intend to use it there, it's good to have permission, just in case. If your subject declines, then ask, "Well, may I record it just for my notes, so I can be sure to quote you accurately?" If no, ask your subject to talk ... very ... slowly ... so ... you ... don't ... miss ... anything.
Q: Anything else to do before getting down to business?
A: The first thing to ask once you have permission to record is this: "Will you please give me your name, tell me how to spell it, and give me your title or otherwise tell me how you'd like me to identify you for this story?"
Q: How can I remember all the questions I want to ask?
A: Write them down -- word for word, if you like. And practice them: As with any writing, reading them out loud is a good way to make sure they make sense.
Q: It's hard to talk, listen, take notes and think at the same time. How do you do it?
A: Most professionals rely on recorders -- cheap little ones or telephone answering machines -- and then transcribe the material later. But now just about any cell phone can be your recorder for live interviews, and free services like Google Voice let you record any (incoming) phone conversation for downloading at your convenience later. Just let your subject know you're doing it. Some subjects will use their own recorders -- as protection from being misquoted. If you don't have or can't borrow a recorder, ask your subject to answer slowly or wait while you write. ("Sorry to take so long, but I want to get this right.")
Q: What if the recorder breaks or fails?
A: Double-check before you begin, so it doesn't. Try to take at least a few notes anyway, in case it does. And if it does, don't be afraid to admit afterwards that something went wrong. Ask your subject to do the interview again. He or she will appreciate your honesty. Most people would rather do an interview again than have a reporter guess or get the facts wrong. I often get a better interview the second time around, anyway. But make sure you get it right the second time.
Q: Should I ask questions that can be answered with a simple "Yes" or "No"?
A: Because you may get just "Yes" or "No" for an answer.
Q: I'll probably have one or two questions I really want answered the most. When's the best time to ask them?
A: Save them for the middle or late part of the interview. That will give you and your subject time to warm up to one another. Don't save Big Questions for the very end of the interview; if your subject has to leave or break away early, you wind up empty-handed.
Q: When my subject gives an answer I don't understand, should I just let it go and double-check the facts later?
Q: Oops. Forgot not to ask a "yes" or "no" question.
A: [Long silence.]
Avoid simply making statements, too. Your subject may not have anything to say about what you say. Your job is to ask questions.
Q: Well, what about those answers I don't understand?
A: Your biggest job as an interviewer is to act as a translator for your ultimate audience -- listeners, readers, teachers. The toughest part is thinking on your feet (or maybe thinking on your seat): Listen to what your subject is saying. If you don't get it, the odds are your audience won't, either. If you get an answer you don't understand, ask the question again a different way. Or ask for an explanation of a specific word, phrase or idea you didn't get. Remember -- and, if need be, remind your subject -- that your main job is to help your subjects explain their opinions and their knowledge to others. ("I want to make sure I can tell my classmates what that means. Could you help me explain it to them?") Your job's not done until you understand what your subject tells you.
Q: I want to ask a subject a really tough question -- one that may hurt his or her feelings. How can I do it?
A: You can get answers without making yourself the villain. (1) Blame it on someone else: "Some people have said you're a crook. What do you say to them?" (2) Take responsibility, but apologize for it: "This may be hard for you to answer, and I wish we could avoid it altogether, but are you a crook?"
Q: What if after I'm done, I realize that I really should have asked another question?
A: Call your subject back. Again, most people will respect your honesty and attention to detail. (Revised March 16, 2015:)
Q: How is interviewing someone for broadcast (audio or video) different from interviewing someone for a newspaper article or school report or other "interpretive" piece?
A: The difference is really in what you're trying to do. Interviewing for entertainment, you may have to give up trying to nail your guest down on a tough question. If you spend ten minutes trying to get an answer to a question the guest doesn't want to answer, it can bore the audience into tuning out; you may have to surrender and move on. If you're interviewing someone mostly for information (something not in the Q-and-A format), you don't have to give up until your subject threatens to leave.
Q: Any other differences?
Q: OK, Mr. Avoid-Yes-or-No-Questions, what are they?
A: If you're interviewing someone -- an author, for instance -- for entertainment (Q-and-A), sometimes it's best not to do quite as much homework. You still need to know enough to lead your guest through an informative interview. But if you've read the whole book, you and the author can get caught up in an "insider" conversation that shuts out the audience -- most of which has never seen or heard of the book.
Q: So why shouldn't I goof off before the interview?
A: If you truly have no idea what you're talking about, your guest and the audience will figure it out. And the guest won't want to work with you ever again. But: If you're interviewing someone for information, you need to understand the material. Read the book, lazybones.
Q: How about summarizing your most important points in a bulleted list?
A: I thought you'd never ask.
- Know your material before you begin.
- Write out the questions.
- Avoid yes/no questions.
- Record the interview, but take notes, too.
- Get permission to record, and then get the name, the spelling of the name, and the title before you begin.
- Save Big Questions for mid-to-late interview.
- Understand the answers.
- Call back if you need more information.
(c) 1997, 2007, 2013 Charles Meyerson