Whether you are conducting a journalistic Q&A session or preparing an oral history, it’s important to prepare carefully for an interview. Here are some guidelines to help you succeed with the interview session.
1. Be Straightforward
When you contact an interview subject, state your objective clearly and honestly. The nature of the interview you conduct should be the nature of the interview you described to the subject. Diversions from the stated agenda may upset the subject and undermine the interview. However, do not provide your questions to the subject in advance; tell him or her that any questions you prepare ahead of time are only part of the interview.
2. Choose an Interview-Friendly Location
The interview subject’s home or office is generally better than a public location such as a coffee shop, with fewer unfamiliar distractions. A subject in the comfort of his or her own environment will provide you with better material, and you can make light conversation about a photograph, a memento, or some other object or feature to start the interview off on a relaxed footing.
3. Research the Subject Thoroughly
Find out as much as you can about the person before the interview. Be well prepared, and distinguish between facts and opinions so you can query the subject appropriately about what you’ve learned.
4. Determine a Theme
Avoid treating an interview as simply a series of general questions and answers. After conducting research, decide what the tone of the interview will be, and what you expect to get out of it. Develop a narrative flow based on the questions you wish to ask. The resulting content probably won’t follow that scheme, but your interview should have structure, and the questions should be organized logically by topic.
5. Prepare Questions
Write down every question you can think of, whether you think you’ll have time to have them answered or not, in the order in which you would like the interview to progress, and then winnow the list to a manageable number of questions (but more than you think you’ll have time for).
Craft simple questions consisting of a single query, and ask the most important ones first, in case the interview is interrupted or halted. Be prepared to jettison some questions, and be flexible enough to digress when the subject goes in an unexpected direction. Continue to follow that lead until it’s no longer productive and you are able to resume your line of questioning, preferably with a smooth transition.
6. Record the Interview
If possible, use a recording device, but take notes in writing as well to help you shape the interview and in case the device malfunctions. Before you begin the interview, inform the subject that you are recording it to enhance the accuracy of the final product. Tell him or her that after you begin recording but before the interview begins, you will ask for his or her consent so that you have a record of it, and then do so.
7. Ask Questions Only the Subject Can Answer
Do not waste the subject’s time by asking questions that can be answered through research. Do, however, use quantitative information such as age as a starting point. Instead of asking how old someone is, for example, ask someone who is old enough to have lived through a certain period in the past about his or her experiences during that time.
8. Engage with the Subject
Demonstrate that you are interested and that what the subject is saying is important. Maintain eye contact as much as possible, but be objective and use neutral body language and avoid nodding, which may actually inhibit a substantive response.
9. Be Polite But Persistent
If some of your questions are provocative or sensitive, word them carefully and ask them diplomatically. If the subject doesn’t answer or provides an inadequate response, ask again in other words. If a response still isn’t forthcoming, return to the topic again later in the interview, explaining why it’s important that the subject respond.
10. Be Patient
When the subject seems to complete a response to a question, do not immediately move on to the next question, whether scripted or thought up at the time. Continue to be attentive, and patiently await more information. Sometimes, the postscript to a response is the best part. Likewise, when the interview is over, and the subject is more relaxed, take advantage of an opportunity to ask a casual question or two or to comment about something he or she said earlier.