When you’re not used to interviewing people for feature stories, it can be intimidating. You have to make small talk. You have to get their quotes right. And perhaps most pressing, you have to come across like you know what you’re doing.
Over the years, I’ve developed a sure-fire method for conducting interviews. I’ve even had some interview subjects thank me for putting them at ease! So if you’ve got a story interview looming, here are some tricks to try.
#1: Do your homework
Mine as much information as you (legally) can about the person you’ll be chatting with. Not only will it probably result in a better story with more context, it will make you feel like you have the upper hand.
Think about it: you know tons of stuff about them, but they don’t know anything about you. You are shrouded in mystery. You could be the next Diane Sawyer or Larry King, for all they know. Own that.
#2: Write down your questions
Does your mind go blank when you’re put on the spot? Write your questions down before the interview. It’ll save you when you suddenly can’t think of anything to ask, and it’ll help you recognize when the interview has gone off the rails and into random territory.
That said, don’t be afraid to interrupt and ask questions that aren’t on your list. It can feel awkward or embarrassing, but there’s nothing wrong with asking for clarification. They’ll probably be more than happy to explain, and it’ll save you a follow-up email later.
#3: Don’t stress too much about quotes
While you want to get their quotes right, most people will completely rewrite their statement when given the chance. If you’re allowing your subject to review the story before it goes to print, just make sure you capture the key ideas and meaning of what they said. During the review process, they’ll fiddle with it until they’re satisfied.
If they won’t review the story before it runs, or you’re discussing a really technical topic, capture the conversation with a digital device so you can get the details right. Just remember to get their okay before you hit “record.”
#4: Develop a shorthand
Awkward silence while you’re trying to write down every little word your subject said is the worrrrrrrst. If you end up relying mostly on handwritten notes (like me), try to be consistent about how you abbreviate things or record important concepts.
Before long, you’ll have your own shorthand that’ll save you tons of time that would otherwise be spent scribbling like mad.
#5: Remind yourself that he/she is a person
The most nerve-racking interview I ever conducted was with a multimillionaire who had donated a large sum of money to a university. The guy was an investing wizard.
But he also liked to paint with acrylics, and he grew up not far from where I did. When I found those things out, I realized he was a person, just like me. He turned out to have a great sense of humor, and I had a lot of fun interviewing him.
That last tip is ultimately the most important one — when you think of your interview subject as a person whose story you want to know, rather than a quote you need to get, the whole process becomes a lot easier.