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.

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