Most writers need to know how to conduct efficient interviews.
If interviewing is a major part of your freelance writing life, you’ve probably come across sources who have trouble putting their thoughts into words.
Once you’ve found a source for an article, and they’ve agreed to be interviewed, you have to get them to talk.
There are a number of reasons it can be hard to get someone to talk even though most people enjoy telling you about themselves. Some people are naturally shy. Some are more visually inclined than verbal; they can show you something wonderful, but have trouble talking about it. And most people, unless they’ve had public relations or marketing experience, are definitely not used to talking to the press.
In my experience, I’ve come across three types of interviewees that have the most difficulty lending their expertise to my stories. In fact, many of my sources fall into these categories. And I’ve come up with some techniques that help me draw them out.
1. The “Yep-Noper”
Yes. No. Yep. Uh-huh.
None of these responses qualify as quotes. And, aside from general expertise on a topic, an interviewer is primarily looking for quotes.
My two best tools for handling monosyllabic responders are these:
Ask for advice.
Play dumb. It’s the best way to get people to tell you things. Even if you know all about the current trends in outdoor water features, pretend you don’t.
Try asking these questions:
“What are your most popular outdoor fountains?”
“What materials are they made from?”
“Are all fountains freestanding or can you hang some on walls?”
“What do they look like?”
Ask about their customers
In my work writing for regional magazines, I talk to a lot of people at local businesses who aren’t used to speaking to the press.
They seem to be trying to tell me what I want to hear instead of what they actually think. That is, when they can think of anything to say. When questions about their work are leading nowhere, trying asking about their customers. In my experience, local business owners like talking about how well they serve their customers. That’s their bread and butter and usually the part of their jobs they find most satisfying.
Try asking these questions:
“Which styles of dining room tables are your customers buying?”
“How do your customers go about paying off credit card debt?”
“How do you help your customers pick out houseplants?”
“Have customers been buying more of this or more of that? Why do you think that is?”
2. The “Big Talker”
This interviewee poses the opposite problem of the “yep-noper.”
Big talkers don’t have a problem talking. Instead, they get off topic easily. You can’t get them to shut up so you can ask all your questions, and you might not be able to keep them on track.
While you appreciate their passion for what they do, you have a story to write. And if your story is about how to choose a college major, you don’t want a source going on about their very specific, highly academic research.
Here’s how to handle a big talker:
Try email first.
Email is best for these subjects. You ask certain questions. They give certain answers. Include “Anything you’d like to add” at the end to throw them a bone.
Guide them back gently.
“Big talkers” are usually excited and happy to have someone to talk to about about what excites them.
Say a professor is detailing a paper on a facet of cell research that is a response to another paper on that facet of cell research they recently presented at a conference for other cell researchers. But your story is a 300-word website story on the faculty-student connection at your university. You need to guide them back to the path and sometimes you’ll have to interrupt to do it.
Politely interrupt and ask something related both to what they’ve been saying and to your original topic.
Try asking these questions:
“That sounds like a great conference. Did any students attend with you?”
“How do you feel experiences like these prepare students for their first jobs or grad school placements?”
Again, focusing on the population your expert serves will often get them back to talking about what’s important to the both of you.
3. The “Micromanager”
I recently interviewed a very bossy breast cancer survivor. She had an important message about breast cancer screenings for younger women. And she asked for a copy of the story before it went to print.
Yeah, no. We don’t do that.
To manage a micromanager:
Present the facts.
Instead of giving my interviewee a copy of her story before printing, I sent her a list of her quotes which were to be used in the story. I included a list of facts from the story as well. She changed several items. And that was that.
Let them talk.
Another way to manage a micromanager is to give them plenty of opportunities to have their say.
Without compromising your integrity, you can offer your source:
- The opportunity to send you an email with anything they might’ve forgotten to say on the phone or in person but remembered later.
- A summary of the major points you discussed in the interview.
- A friendly ear. Most micromanaging interviewees are not really jerks. They’re just perfectionists that are concerned with what other people might think about what they say. Hear them out even if it annoys you. You never know what gems may be uncovered if you let your source spout off a bit.
Try asking a different variety of questions in your next interview and you’ll end the conversation with some usable quotes. You’ll also have a relationship with a source who will probably be happy to be interviewed again.
How do you handle an interview that has derailed or hasn’t even gotten off the ground?