How To Conduct an Interview
Interviews have four stages that precede the writing of a story: arrangements, preparation, the actual interview and the reconstruction.
ARRANGEMENTS-- Spontaneous interviews, except in connection with breaking news, seldom contribute to thoroughness. Once you have decided to interview someone, call in advance to make an appointment. Identify yourself by your name and the name of your publication. If you feel the need to do so or are asked to describe what the story is about, be brief and general. The shape of the story might change as you continue your reporting. If you are interviewing several persons in connection with your story, interview the principal person last, because you will be better prepared based on what you learn from the earlier interviews.
PREPARATION— Do as much research as possible in advance on the person and/or topic you are working on. Sources might include the library, public records, the internet and people you know who can provide background information. Prepare your questions in advance in writing and bring them to the interview. Refer to them but don't show them to the interviewee, because it creates too formal an atmosphere. Ask other questions as they might arise, based on what the interviewee says or something new that might come to you on the spur of the moment. Bring two pencils (or pens) and paper. A stenographer's notebook is usually easier to handle than a large pad but use whatever is comfortable. Bring a tape recorder if you can but be sure to get the permission to use it from the person you are interviewing. You also should take notes, because it will help in the reconstruction phase, and, yes, tape recorders fail occasionally.
THE INTERVIEW— It is inadvisable to launch right into the interview unless you are only being given a few minutes. Some casual conversation to start with will relax both of you. Questions should be as short as possible. Give the respondent time to answer. Be a good listener. If he or she prattles on, it is appropriate to move on as politely as
you can. You might say something such as: "Fine, but let me ask you this…". Try to draw out specifics. How long, how many, when, etc. Absorb the atmospherics of the locale where the interview takes place, with particular attention to what might be a reflection of the interviewee's personality and interests, such as photos of children or bowling trophies or a paper-littered desk or a clean one, etc. Note characteristics of the interviewee that might be worth mentioning in your story, such as pacing, looking out the window to think, hand gestures and the like. Invite the person to call you if she/he thinks of anything pertinent after the interview. It often happens, so be sure to provide your name, email address and phone number on a card or piece of paper before you leave. If that person has a secretary, be sure to get that person's name and telephone number, too, in case there is some detail that needs followup and, again, leave information as to how you may be contacted. If a photo is needed and is not taken during the interview, be sure to make arrangements then to have one taken at a later time.
RECONSTRUCTION— As soon as it's practical after the interview, find a quiet place to review your handwritten notes. In your haste while taking notes, you may have written abbreviations for words that won't mean anything to you a day or two later. Or some of your scribbling may need deciphering, and, again, it is more likely you'll be better able to understand the scribbles soon after the interview. Underline or put stars alongside quotes that seemed most compelling. One star for a good quote, two stars for a very good one, etc. It will speed the process when you get to the writing stage. One other thing to look for in your notes: the quote you wrote down might not make a lot of sense, unless you remember what specific question it was responding to. In short, fill in whatever gaps exist in your notes that will help you better understand them when writing.