The Art and Science of Interviews

Interviewing is an essential skill for a blogger, journalist, or writer. I would like to discuss 10 key concepts in the interviewing process with an emphasis on the new media and freelance journalists.

1. The Initial Approach

Be specific in your request: When you approach your target and/or their media relations representative, provide a detailed plan. “I would like to interview your goalkeeping coach to discuss daily training regimens, his previous playing career, how he evaluates players, along with the role of fitness and nutrition at your club. I anticipate 12 to 15 questions.”

Building upon past interviews to gain credibility: If you have not done business with them before, it is helpful to show examples of your work. Not in the manner of name-dropping; however, to present how you do the job of interviewing.

Express a genuine interest to promote them with your audience: You need to show what you can do for them, and not how they would benefit you or your client. This might be exposure to a new demographic or niche. Or offers of introductions to potential contacts that might assist them in the future.

2. Purpose of the Interview

To inform and educate your audience: You don’t write for yourself or your client. You have to provide your readers with compelling reasons why they should take their valuable time to evaluate the story in front of them.

To promote the interviewee in the best possible manner: I will discuss this more in Section 3; however, the basic goal is to present your interview subject in the best possible light to your audience.

To ask questions which elicit favorable responses that are not seen elsewhere. “There are old pilots and bold pilots. There are no old bold pilots.” Perhaps the same can be said about interviewers. You are judged upon the quality of your questions, and how well they draw out the desired responses. Audiences in the new media have many options. You need to provide them with reasons not to visit your competition.

To promote your client and their business or website/blog. The client commissions you for your special skills in the interviewing process. You need to promote them with the interviewee and/or their public relations (PR) apparatus. Much like with your audience, you need to provide reasons why they should invest time with you and your client.

To create more credibility for you, the interviewee, and the client. The famous American Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, David Halberstam, once said, “You are who you interview.” Interviews present a unique opportunity to build more credibility and showcase your talents. Done properly, the process also does the same things for the interviewee and the client.

3. Interviewer’s Mindset

Serve and promote your client with the interviewee and/or their representatives. You represent your client in the process. Your behavior and attitude in the project reflects upon your client, their business, and anything associated with them. Especially in social media, a favorable impression may yield immediate and residual dividends.

Treat the interviewee as a client. This relates to the second item in the purpose section. Having this perspective makes you view the whole process differently. Years ago, I worked as a technical writer and software tester. When the company was taken over, I was asked to lead a testing group. It was a new role for me, and I had to train others how to test software. One of the challenges was to teach them how to interact with the programmers. “Treat them like a client.” One team member said “They work here like I do. Why are they different?” “Because they create the product and our jobs.” During an interview, a client focus can yield significant benefits. As a freelancer, without the interviewee, you have no potential fee.

Develop rapport with the interviewee. This is not a job interview or witness stand scenario where you should exert pressure, apply psychological ploys, or try to make them look bad. “Do the job in the interview,” while usually a strategy demonstrated by a job applicant, is a good mantra to follow in this case.

Lose your ego and develop a thicker skin. It is not about you. Repeat. It is not about you. Pretend you are the invisible man or woman in the interviewing process. Like a good referee, you are not the protagonist in the game. It also helps to brush off perceived slights and/or rude behavior. Especially when you interview famous or arrogant people. Your job is to deliver the gig. You are not on their level and most likely never will be. But you have the opportunity to show them how a professional does their job. Most of us respect others who do their jobs well.

Know your audience. The client pays you, but without an audience or targeting their needs, your reach will be limited. They can reward or punish you. Especially in the new media, negative comments can have a lingering effect. But so do positive ones, or emailed links of your work to friends and contacts of your audience.

4. Background Research

Learn about your subject matter and the individual. As the respected investigative journalist, Andrew Jennings, told me last month, “Google does not replace shoe leather.” Some of the best advice all of us could expect to receive. Use the Internet, but also develop other information and research sources about the subject at hand, along with the interviewee.

Read and listen to their other interviews. This provides you with a look into their character and personality. Study what others asked them and how they responded. Learn how you can present them differently.

Gauge and anticipate their temperament to frame your questions. If you can find a video clip with your interviewee, all the better. But even lacking that, by studying their previous interviews, you can glean useful information that we will discuss in the next point.

Learn what excites or angers them (questions to ask and avoid). You can ask the wrong question. Much of that occurs when you don’t prepare properly. If you see what drives them, what is their passion, it will help you frame the questions better. Note which questions or topics anger or irritate them.

Decide how to progress (See Section 8, Types of New Media Interviews).

5. Importance of an Introduction

Don’t assume your audience knows who they are or their C.V. You have to provide a proper introduction. When the President of the USA walks into a room, someone always announces him.

The promotional value of the introduction can not be overemphasized. It shows good faith and the willingness to promote the interviewee to your audience. It enables the interviewee to see that you have a genuine interest in their career.

Create a bridge of rapport with the audience and the interviewee by providing more than is seen in other places. A detailed introduction both informs and prepares the audience for the discussion.

6. Questions

How to begin: Start slowly and build rapport. Structure the discussion with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

What to ask: Your research should determine what is unique about this person, along with the areas that your target audience would like to learn more about. As we discussed in Section 4, research teaches you areas to focus upon, and others to avoid with a particular person.

What not to ask: One of my first interviews was with Mick Hoban of SoccerSolutions. “If you ask the wrong question, I probably won’t proceed.” Learn what might be the wrong question, and avoid it. Sometimes, you may have to ask directly before the interview which areas are untouchable. Other times, your research will clarify the matter. When in doubt, leave it out.

Types of questions: Open ended versus close ended. Confrontational versus a calmer approach. The more detailed your question, the more detailed the potential response may be. Avoid questions that require a brief response (Yes or No). Remember that honey attracts more bees than pesticide. Most interviewers would be advised not to treat the interviewee in a hostile manner. Remember, your job is to also promote them in a favorable light. In the Internet age, most of us already know about their foibles.

Length of questions: Shorter work better, but focus on detail and quality. Be unique. Try to draw out the interviewee if they seem reticent or reluctant to provide detailed responses.

Number of questions (tailoring) and based upon agreed length of the interview. According to Readingsoft.com, 150 spoken words per minute and 200 reading words per minute are average benchmarks. Which works out to about 90 seconds to 2 minutes per response.

Follow up questions: Depends on time and how the person responds to earlier questions. Sometimes, your later questions will be answered earlier in the interview. Other times, you might add one to follow up a point in more detail.

How to end: Ask their advice to share with your audience. It enables them to put their personal touch on the discussion, and to end the interview on a positive note.

7. Tailoring Principle

Someone with significant media exposure has an advantage. Their talking points and vast experience make them more assertive in the process. Don’t take it personally if they appear to avoid your questions. But try to anticipate their behavior by tailoring your questions that produce sound bite responses.

Some are not used to interviews, are cautious, and need to be directed. Even after significant preparation, your guest may not cooperate fully with the interview process. In these cases, focus on the areas where they seem more comfortable. Five good responses is better than fifteen vague ones.

Some aren’t used to interviews outside of their native language. Especially in North America, don’t assume that the whole world speaks English as their native tongue. Regardless of your locale, learn another language. Even a few phrases in the interviewee’s language will be appreciated, and also create mutual empathy. Offer to provide an interpreter, or translate the questions ahead of time. You should strive to make the interviewee comfortable.

Coaches and other subject matter experts, given the opportunity, like to explain their craft in great detail. In those cases, fewer questions with more detail might work better. Or ask for more time to enable them to properly present their expertise.

Structure the interview for the agreed amount of time or number of questions. This is especially important in a live format. For example, a podcast (which I will discuss in Section 8). But if they tell you “30 minutes” or “12 questions maximum,” respect their wishes.

8. Types of New Media Interviews

Email format: Positive (+) and Negative (-)

+ No transcription of the responses saves a lot of time.
+ Works better for non-local projects.
+ More efficient for both parties because there is less immediate pressure.
+ More organized process and less time invested by the interviewer.

– Impersonal in nature.
– Requires the interviewee to expend significant effort and time.
– May require several follow-ups to complete the project.
– Interviewee has more control over the process.

Taped and transcribed (Speedwriting/shorthand for brief interviews): Traditional format (+ and –)

+ More professional.
+ Many interviewees are used to and expect this format.
+ Allows you to speak with them on the phone or meet in person.
+ For shorter interviews, shorthand or speedwriting techniques could be used.
+ To ensure accuracy, the interviewee and/or their representative can review the transcript.

– Transcription adds significant time to the project:

At 150 spoken words a minute, a 30 minute discussion would produce about 4500 words to transcribe (some people speak faster). At an accurate typing speed of 60 WPM, it would take you 75 minutes to produce that word count. That doesn’t include the time involved to ensure accuracy, readability, and to listen over passages that are more technical in nature. Remember, transcription is a skill. Perhaps it would be wise to budget one hour for every 5 minutes of audio if you do it yourself. (With the hope that your speed and accuracy increase with experience). According to Franklin-Square.com, budget about 4 times the length of the audio file for a professional transcription. For example, 1 hour of audio would take 4 hours at their billing rate.

– Hiring a transcriber (with topic matter experience) is more efficient but reduces your fee.
– A misquote is more likely with this format. One wrong word or sentence could change the tenor of an answer and/or the entire interview.

Podcast format (+ and -)

+ Added value for your client.
+ A more personal approach.
+ New media audiences are receptive and are able to put a voice behind the words.
+ Usually, a transcript would be additional or not required.

– Professional equipment is usually required.
– Presentation training is necessary for a professional exchange.
– The “live” format can create unique challenges.
– A media savvy interviewee will have a distinct advantage over you.

Videocast format (+ and -)

+ The highest potential value for all parties.
+ The most professional presentation tool in the new media.
+ Increased reach due to viral marketing.
+ Increased interview fee due to a higher value for your client.

– Requires purchasing or renting professional video equipment.
– Requires professional presentation skills and/or a proper taping environment.
– Requires a videographer which reduces your fee. (Or could be an argument to charge more).
– Anything less than a high quality presentation will be interpreted in a negative fashion.

Providing a transcript before the discussion (+ and -)

+ Allows the interviewee to prepare properly.
+ Shows your own preparation for the project.
+ Enables them to correct or suggest things ahead of time.

– Locks you into a very structured discussion.
– Provides the other party(s) with your game plan.
– Provides the other party(s) with the chance to surprise you during the discussion.
– If you ask an unauthorized question, it might create significant fallout.

9. Importance of Follow up

Courtesy: Sometimes, this is a forgotten skill in the Internet age. The interviewee is a guest. They are providing you with a gig, along with opportunities for future work based upon their experience with you.

Appropriate gratitude: Thank them properly. A client focus gives you an advantage here. Offer to promote them in your network. Try to build bridges of mutual benefit for the future.

Involve your client in the process: They also need to show appreciation once the interview has been completed and published.

10. Analysis

Grade the interview. Both of yourself and the interviewee.

Ask for feedback and/or study comments made on the article thread.

How can you improve your performance? Should you have asked fewer or more questions? Compared to other interviews, did this person provide you with more or less information?

Be receptive to criticism from the client, the interviewee, and/or the PR person involved.

Your next interview will be your best interview.

Your Experiences

What have been your own experiences with interviews, and what advice could you share? How could interviewers do a better job in the new media?

Steve Amoia is the author and editor of the World Football Commentaries blog. He has written for AC Cugini Scuola Calcio, Football Media, Keeper Skool, and Soccerlens.

He can be contacted at info@sanstefano.com and his writing portfolio can be found at www.sanstefano.com.