How To Prepare to Interview the Subject of your next Feature

So you have an opportunity to interview someone for your next feature article, but you know little or nothing about that person.

What can you do to prepare?

If you really want to write the best possible feature or simply improve your writing, dig deep.

1. Read a minimum of three pieces that about the person. Read a maximum of as much as you possibly can as time allows. As a rule of thumb, the more notable the person, the more research you should do.

2. Go out of your way to avoid repetition of information that already exists. Take a minimalist approach to those often covered items.

Check Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Huffpost, LinkedIn, memoirs, and any other sources you can find with biographical information. Look specifically for a new or unique piece of information that you can use as a talking point. If the person is not famous, and typical research sources leave you with little, find out everything you can by speaking to his or her friends, neighbors, or business associates to learn more.

Suppose you have the opportunity to interview the swimming champion Mark Spitz of the U.S. Olympic team. Let’s say you are young enough not to have heard of Mr. Spitz and after you read “swimming champion,” you thought: “Michael Phelps.” That’s okay, read on.

A little online digging reveals that Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, breaking records in each of those events in the 1972 Munich, Germany games. (Phelps broke Spitz’s record in 2008 in Beijing, China.) However, inextricably linked to Spitz’s historical wins in Munich is the attack on the Olympic compound by Palestinian rebels who killed 11 Israeli athletes.

Working from references on Wikipedia, you find a 2004 Reuters article that discusses how Olympic officials belatedly realized that Spitz, a Jew with seven gold medals, could become a prime target. Spitz, still in the Olympic village watched while the events unfolded. The officials decided for his safety to send Spitz home, and put him on a plane to London.

Discussing that event would be an excellent starting point for your interview as it remains historically significant. Now, over 40 years later, Spitz might have new perspective about the experience. Ask about the details he remembers of that day, the weeks following, and what it means now.

When conducting an interview about a traumatic historic event, frame your questions sensitive to the idea that your subject bore witness to it. 

Additionally, and perhaps less notably, one of Spitz’s purported hobbies is art collecting. You can dig deeper to learn about his collection. Consider how it reflects his personality and experiences. Ask to see some, if you can. Perhaps there’s a connection between the art and the athlete.

Some basic searching will also tell you that Spitz, along with other noted athletes, has promoted the importance of quality health care. There are a myriad of potential questions about what he did and why that could add body to your feature.

The Olympic games massacre in Munich, Spitz’s art collecting, and his interest in promoting health care are three distinct potential topics of conversation that I considered after less than ten minutes of research. If I were actually planning to interview him, I’d certainly spend more time digging.

Research the person whom you plan to interview and prepare as many questions as you can. Personally, I prefer to have 10 questions for every 15 minutes of interview time allowed. I aim to have too many questions.

Most importantly, listen to the answers given, and do not be afraid to ask spontaneous questions if you think the conversation is taking an interesting direction. You can always revert back to your prepared questions later if there’s time.

Spring Cleaning

Are there phrases that you often use that make your writing as dull as the last few days of winter?

Make it a point to spring clean your writing to remove any clichés.

Scour your next written piece for any evidence of those weary words to ensure that you replace them with fresh polish. Better yet, invent a few new ways of approaching your subject by adding imagery.

Which is more interesting to read?

Walter opened the door to a dusty, sparse room save for an old four-poster, long in need of replacement.

vs.

Walter opened a door in the dark hallway exposing a tiny room, its air heavy with the musty smell of a summer cabin open for the first time in a season—the mattress dank with mountain dampness.

The scene uses the same character entering a room but the second invokes a feeling and smell that is lacking in the first. Use of imagery can make your writing more interesting to the reader. Honing this aspect of your work during editing will be worth the time spent.

Break out the lemon juice and get scrubbing.

Breaking the Interview Ice in Two Steps

Writers, even shy ones occasionally have to interview people in order to get the information they cannot get through other research avenues.

Interviewing a stranger can be so easy if you keep in mind one simple idea: people love to talk about themselves. That’s what makes interviewing them a snap once you break the ice.

So, how do you do that?

Provide the person whom you plan to interview with your objective.

For example, you might say, “As part of its latest recruiting effort, the Department of Homeland Security has asked that I write a piece about your experiences while training to become an agent.”

A statement like this sharpens your subject’s focus as s/he responds during the interview. If your subject drifts off topic while speaking to you, bring it back just by prefacing your queries with, “during your training experience…”

Many people become nervous when being interviewed. Others, who are more experienced, will be calm when peppered with questions. Since you probably won’t know ahead of time which type of person you will be dealing with, do not lead with a question.

For an inexperienced interviewee, telling you about his/her background can be more relaxing than worrying about how to respond to certain questions. For the latter, s/he expects that you will ask the same questions that others have asked and will likely have “canned” answers already prepared. Obtaining background information from these subjects often exposes parts of the story that have never been told before.

Tell your subject that you’d like some background
before you ask your questions of him or her.

Begin this way; “Tell me about how you first became interested in security.” Be careful to avoid asking a direct question.

Really listen to what s/he has to say because it may help you ask better questions, cover a particular tidbit in more detail, or find a direction for your story that you never anticipated during your preparation for the interview.

Respond periodically, reaffirming those things that s/he chooses to discuss. If you are well-versed in the subject matter, you may be able to simply agree or provide understanding. If not, a simple comment like, “That’s interesting, I never knew the level of commitment it would take to train to become a DHS agent,” will acknowledge that you are listening to what the person is saying and make him/her feel comfortable to continue.

This “telling” by your subject and responding by you sets the tone of the question and answer format. When the person seems to be winding down with the background information they have chosen to share, simply ask your first question. It should feel seamless as you have already broken the ice.