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Monday, November 22, 2010

Five Techniques to Better Interviews

If you freelance for magazines or write books, interviewing experts and "real people" sources is part of your job. The more you get from your sources, the more material you have to work with--and the more compelling your writing will be.

Here are five simple ways to get more from your interviews, whether you're interviewing an expert in her field or someone who's had personal experience with the subject:

1. Do your homework! In other words, prepare in advance. I was just interviewed by a college student about freelancing. Many of the answers to questions he asked me ("How long have you been freelancing?" "What kinds of work do you do?") could be found on my website. Do some background research before you do your interview--and let the person know you did so by saying something like, "So, you've been conducting research on the glycemic index for years. What led to that interest?" or "In your new book, you talk about the relationship between body image and happiness. Tell me more about that." When your sources knows you've prepared for the interview, you'll get better quotes, guaranteed.

2. Ask if it's a good time for the person to speak. The first question out of your mouth should be, "Is this still a good time for you talk?" About one-quarter of the time, my source asks me to call back in ten minutes, or a half-hour. That's fine with me--I want the person's undivided attention, after all. And this shows respect for the person you're interviewing.

3. Give your source a heads-up about what you'll ask ahead of time. I want the best quotes possible, so when we schedule the interview I give the source a general idea of what I plan to ask, and who the audience for the piece is. A prepared source=good interview. That's why I typically don't contact someone and do the interview right then--I know I'll get better quotes if I give her a chance to think about the subject beforehand.

4. Listen. Sure, I have questions I need answered, but I listen to what my source is saying so I can ask additional questions, or let the interview go in a different direction. Early in my career, I was so focused on getting what I needed I would just run down a list of questions without really listening to the subtext of what was being said. I've since learned that a good interview is a conversation between two people, not just canned questions and answers.

5. Say thank you. Better yet, send an actual thank-you note. This person is giving you her time--so show your appreciation. I send a personal thank-you to do so--and let me tell you, people remember me as a result. I also let sources know when they're quoted in print. That has let me develop a Rolodex of hundreds of expert sources in a variety of areas--and if I'm stuck and need a "quick-and-dirty" interview for a rush assignment, they come through for me.

Use these five strategies and you'll get more from your interviews--and develop your own stable of expert sources as well, which saves you time researching other stories.

Are you a new freelancer who wants to know more about researching articles? Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money includes a chapter on research (including interviewing) as well as a how-to chapter that walks you through the process of writing an article for publication from scratch--and ten chapters about the ten hottest nonfiction specialties and how to write about them.

Coming soon: posts on goal-setting, the best markets for new writers to pitch, and making clients love you.


  1. These are such great tips, Kelly. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Good tips as usual! And too funny...on Monday I'll have a post on how to get over the fear of interviews (which I still have, just a little bit, to this day!).