How to interview someone to guarantee great copy

When you’re a writer, other human beings are your best source. Whatever you’re writing, the more you talk to people the more powerful your words will be.

For example, if you’re creating a homepage for your business, talking to your customers will help you see the world from their perspective – and craft your copy to appeal to them.

But to get the most out of your conversations, you need to be an accomplished interviewer. Here’s how to get the best answers out of people.

When to record
If you need an exact, word for word, record of what they say, then go ahead and record.

For example, if they’re an astrophysicist or a philosopher, I like to have a recording so I don’t need to follow up with embarrassing questions because I didn’t catch some technical term or can’t quite make sense of my scribbled notes.

And always ask for permission. A quick ‘do you mind if I record this interview?’ beforehand is polite. I’ve never had anyone refuse.

When not to record
Having to replay and transcribe an audio file is time consuming. So if you can get away with not taping your interview, then do. If you just need the gist of their answers, or they’re going to be reviewing the copy anyway, before publication, scribbled down notes should be fine.

Check your tech
Make sure your recording device works and has fresh batteries or is fully charged. And always familiarise yourself with how it works beforehand, so you’re not fiddling about wasting the interviewee’s time and getting all flustered. I always take along two devices just to be sure!

Research your subject
Do your background research on who they are, what they’ve done and what they may have said in previous interviews.

If someone else has commissioned the interview, ask them why they’ve chosen this particular person. Why are they seeking your interviewee’s perspective? This will help you ask them the right questions.

How do I get them to open up?
If you’ve chosen the right interviewee, you should have no problems getting them to talk – you’d be amazed at how animated people get when they’re asked about something they care about. You just need to ask the right questions in the right way.

Prepare your questions
You’ll want to keep the conversation natural and fairly spontaneous-seeming. But having a list of questions to refer to will ensure that you get the information you need.

You don’t want to leave the interview and realise that you forgot to ask one crucial question you really needed an answer to.

How to phrase your questions
To get great answers, phrase your questions so they’re open-ended. In other words, ask questions that encourage your subject to elaborate. It’s best to ask questions beginning with words like: Who? What? When? Why? How?

In other words, don’t ask questions likely to result in a monosyllabic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer – because chances are, that’s all you’ll get!

Ask follow-up questions
Even though you’ll have prepared a selection of questions in advance, you don’t want it to appear like you’re interrogating them like a robot who can’t depart from the script.

So listen actively to their answers and be prepared to ask follow up questions if the interview takes an unexpected but interesting turn.

What if I don’t understand their answer?
When you’re interviewing a subject matter expert, there’s often a risk they’ll descend into impenetrable tech talk or biz babble. And if you don’t understand it, you can’t write about it compellingly.

So If that happens, ask your interviewee for examples that illustrate their point.

For example: “You’ve said that GloboCorp’s success has been down to consistently leveraging a wide range of innovative solutions for our clients. Can you give me an example or tell me the story of how one of our products has transformed one of our clients’ businesses.”

Trust me, your readers will thank you for providing a something concrete they can picture rather than this dry drivel about leveraging solutions.

What if their answer is boring?
If your interviewee gets bogged down in a lot of boring detail, help them consider the larger context.

Just say: ‘that’s really interesting – I wonder if you could elaborate on how it ties in with the big picture of x, y, z’

Ask this question to save you time at the write-up stage
If ever I’m getting too-much-information, I often ask: ‘what’s the one key message you’d like our readers to know after reading this piece’.

Let’s say you’ve been commissioned to craft a new company mission statement based on interviews about the firm with each board member. This ‘key message question’ is a great way to get your interviewee to distil their most important comments – so you don’t have to.

One final question you must ask
At the end of every interview, I always ask the interviewee if there was anything we haven’t covered – a topic they haven’t had a chance to address. It’s partly politeness but also ensures you haven’t missed the most important story.