Ernest Hemingway noted that “most people never listen.” Not surprisingly, the best interviewers are wonderful listeners. Curiosity about people and their passions is their strongest motivator and preparation is their most important tool. Anyone who can talk to another person can add this crucial skill to their communications toolbox with the right techniques.
It’s one thing to be a skillful writer – putting thoughts in order, using facts to bolster one’s premise and weaving imagery into entertaining, informative stories. It’s quite another to successfully gather the information you need from the right people in an effective and efficient manner.
Learn Before You Go
Before you schedule the interview, learn as much about the individual and the subject as possible. Not only will this prepare you, it will help you relax and do your job with confidence.
Formulate questions in the order you want to ask them, but do not be wedded to your plan. When you let someone know that you are truly listening, follow-up questions or even new tangents will yield unexpected information. Ask open-ended questions that encourage detail.
Don’t Be Afraid to Slow Down
New interviewers sometimes gloss over information they don’t understand or neglect to request clarification. Don’t be shy about asking your subject for extra time as you write their comments down, or request that they repeat an important point.
Ask one question at a time and be patient, polite and respectful – even if the subject is difficult to deal with or reluctant to offer insights. Ask for referrals to other sources.
What to Do Next
Don’t just write down what you hear in an interview – note what you see. Let your source know that you will call back to gather additional information or check the accuracy of things that are fuzzy.
Review your notes as soon as possible while everything is fresh in your mind and annotate the most important points. Consider outlining your story immediately based on your interview.
Tools of the Trade
Despite the advent of new technology, I continue to take notes as well as recording interviews. I use the notes function on my iPad because I can type so much faster than I can write. With that said, I have a clever digital tape recorder that’s so small it easily fits in a purse pocket. I like to use it for backup. It’s important to use a couple of different ways of capturing information in case one of them fails. When I get back to my office, I email my notes to the PC and clean them up before beginning to write my story.
Practice Makes Perfect
Careful preparation helps interviewers overcome self-consciousness and shyness. But only successful repetition of the interviewing process will make you comfortable with the process.
Rather than avoiding interviews, I now look forward to them. I enjoy meeting new people and learning new things, and interviewing is second-nature to me. Other than the creative process of writing stories, it’s one of my favorite parts of my communications work.