5 Tips for Conducting Stellar Interviews


As a writer, you seek other people’s stories to strengthen the one you are telling.  This process can be excruciating or pleasant—and sometimes both.

Some people take to talking to reporters and writers as if they were receiving a dose of castor oil from Aunt Polly. It takes a lot of work to get their mouths open.  Then there are those people who, when asked a question, take the opportunity to tell you every miniscule detail of their life story—and think you should hold that as a precious privilege.

In the end, you want a person’s story or a compelling quote that puts the extra sparkle on your story. Here’s how you can get it.

1. A good interviewer wants to create a conversation, not an inquisition. If you love The Larry King Show and try to duplicate his ice-cold questioning technique, you will find your interview subjects cold.  The compelling guests are why we watched Larry King, not his penetrating questions.

In order to get deep insight out of an interview subject, listen to what the person is saying and ask your follow-up questions based on what he or she says, not what you think will be said or what’s written next on your piece of paper. Rapid fire questioning doesn’t make anyone feel comfortable—and comfort is key in creating an environment for generating rich responses.

When I asked ESPN.com columnist Pat Forde (@ESPN4D) about one of the worst questions he ever heard, he referred to a clip of a Larry King interview he once saw:

“Larry King was interviewing a woman who had these fairly horrible and disfiguring lumps all over her body, face included. She was really opening up on the emotional toll about how she used to be pretty when King cuts her off with, ‘Do they itch?’ She totally shut down after that.”

Sincerely listen and respond as if you were an interested and caring friend, not an interrogating cop from Law & Order.

2. Frame your questions in a way that invites the interviewee to share more. One of the ways to almost guarantee getting an unprintable response is to say, “Talk about (fill in the blank.)” That is not an invitation; that is a statement that won’t lead the interview subject to the place you want him or her to go. It is a dead end. Open-ended questions are good—but open-ended questions wrapped in a warm invitation to share more are better.

One day I was interviewing a baseball pitcher whose meteoric ascent to stardom was suddenly equaled by his descent to most-hated player on the roster. Instead of asking him how it felt to hear boos when he ran out onto the mound (which we all know would make us feel horrible, right?), I asked him a similar question in a different way.

“With the slump you’re going through right now, how difficult is it for you to separate Dan the baseball player from Dan the father and husband when you go home?”

The player teared up before regaining his composure to share some insight into his struggle to keep his identity as a man from being dictated by his success or failure on the field as a player. Getting raw emotional answers rarely happens by accident.

3. Keep your mouth shut. Unlike a conversation with a friend, awkward silence is fine—and sometimes gets rewarded.

Fanhouse.com national sports columnist Brett McMurphy (@BrettmcmurphY) explains why this is important when interviewing people: “Don’t interrupt their answers. If you don’t say anything, some times they’ll continue talking and open up even more than they intended.”

After trudging through a recent interview with what I was quickly judging as a dud, I decided to remain silent as the tight-lipped athlete gave another short answer. His pregnant pause eventually gave way to a stunning revelation about how he beat cancer and used his sport to do it. My patience resulted in a powerful story.

4. Be risky in your interview style. While you might think being risky is about asking a question that might get you yelled at, risk-taking is journalism 101. You’re not doing a thorough job until you’ve been dressed down a few times. However, being risky is more about style than content.

Once, I decided to interview a rising star sophomore at a local high school football team but was told by his coaches I would be wasting my time. They warned me that he was soft-spoken if verbal at all. They saw him as a shy guy; I saw his shyness as an opportunity to discover something substantial about him.

After meandering through a list of questions I crafted to coerce teenage football players to give more than two-word answers, I realized the interview was going nowhere. On my last question about his hobbies, he said he likes to play video games and draw. Rather than go home in defeat, I took a chance and asked him if I could see his drawings.

In an instant, he went from shy guy to introspective artist. He flipped open his sketch pad and began showing me his drawings. He even aspired to revamp the school’s archaic Viking logo one day with an updated modern twist. His coaches were so baffled after they read my story that they asked me if I interviewed the same guy on their team. (Fun fact: The budding artist is now a Pro Bowl sack machine for the Dallas Cowboys named Jay Ratliff.)

5. Search for their story. Don’t be satisfied with matter-of-fact answers; go for the personal anecdotes. Those stories are what interest readers and brings your story to life.

Following a state high school basketball tournament game, I interviewed the key player for the winning team. She gave me all the horrible clichés that inclined me to to leave out her responses altogether. Then she said something that made me take note.

“It was great having my dad and the rest of my family in the stands tonight,” she said.

It was almost innocuous, but my curiosity was piqued. Why did she single out her dad?

I followed up with asking her why it was so great having specifically her dad in the stands. She then went on to tell me that he had never seen her play until this season because he used to work the night shift. But then he came down with cancer and couldn’t work—and the silver lining was that he got to watch her play every game of her senior season.

My effort was rewarded as I quickly interviewed her dad and suddenly had a moving story to write. While such back stories might be common knowledge for more well-known interview subjects, it’s the ones who aren’t as well known that will require a little more digging.

Happy interviewing!

What are some other ways you generate thoughtful responses from interview subjects?

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