Before you contact any person for an interview, research that person. Get to know the facts on that person before you approach him, before you mention the magazine you’re writing for. Who are his equals and rivals? Does he like or hate the media? Research the topic as well so you don’t waste the source’s time with basic questions you could answer on your own. What do you have in common with your interview subject? Same college, similar hobbies? This connection can open a door.
One source for locating experts on a topic is ProfNet or Professors Network. This free service is used by journalists worldwide to locate public information officers in government, business and academia. ProfNet is a cooperative of public information officers. The service is free to writers and queries by email are preferred. Send in your request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to include:
- Name of publication you are working for
- Synopsis of the project
- Field of expertise desired
- Time frame for publication
- Preferred method of response (phone, email, snail mail…)
- Ask how the expert source wants to be identified (John Smith, author of ABCs of Genius, and Harvard Professor of Psychology….)
Notice the advertisers. Is there any way to tie their products or business into the story? Quote one of their experts? Don’t use them just to drop their name, but why pass up a willing source, a source that already ties itself to your target publication?
Buy a phone line splitter or other device to record phone interviews directly. Always, always ask permission to record the conversation for accuracy. Remember Monica Lewinski’s “friend” who ended up with felony charges for this? Ask for permission to share the interviewee’s phone number with the editor in case of last minute questions or verification. Many top-paying magazines require a transcript of an interview, especially if the subject is famous or speaking on a controversial issue.
Beware of recording an interview in a restaurant or other noisy setting because background noise can drown out your questions and the subject’s answers. If you must interview someone in a restaurant or cafe, choose a quiet time or seek an unused conference room.
Even if you take shorthand or have a perfect memory, record the interview. When transcribing it later, you are likely to encounter a terrific quote or turn of phrase that captures the person’s personality. Reveal the expert as a person, warm-blooded and human, rather than just the expert. Take notes on mannerisms, behavior, habits and other details to bring the reader into the setting of the interview. Capture the smells, sounds, sights, and other details, especially if you are in the interview subject’s home turf.
While it is best to use direct quotes from interview subjects, you can also paraphrase what is said. You will encounter an occasional source who is simply unquotable–run-on sentences, sentence fragments, English as a second language–so listen for meaning as well as for wording.
Ask open-ended, unbiased questions and shut up! The adage in sales is that after the pitch is made the next one to talk goes home with the product. Ease into the tough questions by starting with basics that show you’ve done your research—verify facts on the person—date of birth, place of birth, education, special interests, hobbies.
When interviewing a person always verify the spelling and title of the person’s name. John can be spelled Jon. Check. Verify.
Corroborate information gained from interviews. Do other sources repeat the same information and impressions? Do public records back up the facts?
In a story that stirs controversy; open your mind to see the issue from the side of the interview subject. Verify claims of sources, especially those sources with payback on their minds. Quote exactly and completely if the source’s view is part of the story.
Bring a camera to record images of the interview subject. This helps the writer keep track of who is who and often the magazine will buy the photo if they cannot send a photographer. An animated photo is always better than a static, posed portrait. If the subject has a professional portrait, ask for a copy. Give the publisher good options for images to go along with your article.
- Prepare factual questions, to get information, to open discussion. Example: Who, what, where, when, why and how.
- Prepare explanatory questions, to get reasons, to broaden discussion, to develop additional information. Examples: “In what way would this solve the problem?” “What other aspects of this should be considered?” “How would that be done?”
- Prepare justifying questions, to challenge old ideas, to explore reasoning. Examples: “Why do you think so?” “How do you know?” “What evidence do you have?”
- Prepare leading questions, to advance a suggestion to others, to introduce a new idea. Examples: “Would this alternative work?” “What other ideas have you considered?”
- Prepare hypothetical questions, to explore an unpopular opinion, to change the course of the discussion. Examples: “Suppose you did as your opponent suggested…What would happen?” “How do other cities handle this issue?” “Are alternative fuels usable in this vehicle?”
- Prepare decisive questions, to choose between alternatives, to develop consensus. Examples: “Which solution is better—A or B?” “What is the next step to implement the change?” “Do you believe the public will agree to the company’s plan?”
- Prepare personal questions, to elicit anecdotes, to reveal personality and character. Use this kind of question for a profile or feature on the person. Examples: “What’s the most unusual case you’ve ever had, Doctor?” “What are three things people don’t know about you?” “What other careers interest you?” “What would you like your friends and colleagues to say about you at your funeral?”
- Prepare superlative questions, to find the newsworthy hook. Ask for examples of the biggest, best, worst, most unusual experience the subject has encountered in his work. For example, an orthopedic doctor reveals that after a hurricane he treated 12 people for falls because they were cutting limbs or trees that their ladder was braced on. Every one of them admitted trying to save money by doing it themselves when a professional tree cutter was available.
Always ask your interview subject who else to talk to on this subject. Experts know one another and are more willing to talk if you mention that you have already interviewed one of their equals or rivals.
In writing about Emmy-winning director David Nutter, I sent the request for an interview to him through his agent. During the interview with Mr. Nutter, he mentioned an actor who had worked with him on a previous project. I asked if he would call the actor and let him know I would be calling to ask him a few questions. That call opened the door to the next contact without involving delays and agents.
Ask: “Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to tell me?” Listen. You might get info on your next article, an anecdote or other valuable info.
After publication, send a copy of the magazine to each person interviewed in the article with a short thank-you note and business card. When your source encounters another topic that seems newsworthy, who’s he gonna call?
After publication, send a thank you note to the editor with an offer to take an assignment and suggestions or a pitch for a related or follow-up article.
To read similar articles, go to www.jonimfisher.com.