5 mistakes writers make when doing interviews, and how to avoid them

a retro-looking reporter taking notes during an interviewInterviewing someone for a story is difficult. Getting people to give you valuable, useful, interesting information in a colorful way is no small task. You need to ask good questions, follow up, take notes, as well as observe the environment and personal mannerisms.  It’s a lot to process, and it only gets harder when you make it difficult on yourself.  Here are five things I’ve learned to avoid that can help make interviews a lot better:

1. Don’t ask long, convoluted questions

Ever been to a big meeting or a lecture where an audience member stands up, and instead of asking a direct question, rambles incoherently for two minutes, then finally asks something like, “what do you think about that?”  Don’t be that guy.  Nothing makes me cringe more than listening to an interview I did and hearing myself launch a long, windy question that takes a full minute to unravel.  It’s rare that such questions need to be that long:  usually it’s just a rambling statement or observation with the real question appended to the end of it.  The interview shouldn’t be about you or your impressions (that’s what your story is for); the interview needs to focus on your subject.  Keep the questions short, clear, and open-ended.

2. Don’t think! Listen.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made during interviews is being so busy thinking of my next question or how a quote will fit in my story that I miss or neglect to follow-up on something interesting that a subject reveals.  When I listen to recordings of interviews, I’m often baffled that a subject might say something like “I haven’t talked to my father in more than ten years,” and I’ll not even respond or ask him to explain; instead, I move on to an unrelated next question.  A obvious, but difficult skill when interviewing is to concentrate on listening to your subject so that you take advantage of new information he or she presents, rather than robotically taking notes and walking through a list of pre-conceived questions.

3. Don’t marry yourself to weak interviews

Sometimes I’ve scored an interview with a famous person or a highly regarded expert, but when we finally talk, what they say isn’t particularly interesting. Or maybe an interview is interesting and insightful, but turns out to be a poor fit for the focus of the story.

Years ago, while working on a story, I interviewed about six fathers who took paternity leave.  One of them, an old friend, had lots of interesting things to say about the challenges of being on his own with the kids. But when I listened to the recording of the interview, it became clear that he was talking about the challenges of being a stay-at-home father, not about taking paternity leave from work. It might have been useful for a different story, but didn’t really fit this one.  Yet I didn’t cut it.  I didn’t want to give up on the great interview I had with him, even though it wasn’t right for the story.

Sometimes hard-sought interviews just don’t warrant being used in a final story. It’s hard to accept that you might have emailed back and forth with someone eight times, talked for an hour, written up notes on the interview, and yet it has no place in your story. Interviews need to support or develop the key ideas and themes of a story.  If they don’t, they need to go.

4. Don’t write down long quotes; write down times

When someone delivers a fantastic quote, you can get lost trying to jot it down word for word.  Odds are, while you’re doing that, you’re missing something else.  Instead of writing down quotes verbatim, jot down a short snippet of the quote and the time marker for when it he or she said it.

For example, for a recent story, an Afghanistan war veteran told me about teenage students he knows who have no memory of America before it was at war. “Because it’s been there for as long as they can remember, it’s just a fact of life,” he said. Nice quote.  In my notes taken during the interview, I wrote “’just a fact of life’… 7:30” — a quick reminder of the quote, plus the note that he said it seven and a half minutes into the interview. This approach has two benefits.  First, it allows you to focus on what you’re subject is saying more than trying to write out that juicy quote.  Second, when you’re working on a deadline, it will be a lot easier to locate that quote in your recording because you know exactly where to find it.  Odds are, no matter how well you took notes, you’ll need to go back and make sure you wrote it down correctly.

5. Don’t trust your batteries

It doesn’t matter if you think your batteries should be fine; Murphy’s Law says that if you’re doing an interview with a recording device, it will run out of juice at the wrong time.  ALWAYS put new (or freshly-recharged) batteries into your recorder before every interview.  Even if you don’t lose your interview, you don’t want be asking your subject to wait while you switch batteries.  And always have a few backup batteries on hand, just in case.

2 thoughts on “5 mistakes writers make when doing interviews, and how to avoid them

  1. Good tips! Another tip is to not feel obliged to fill in pauses or gaps in the conversation – especially if your interviewee has given a brief answer. Just hold out. They may feel awkward and fill in the space – with something interesting…

  2. Excellent point, Alex… and a tip I should have included. Awkward silences are definitely an interviewer’s friend, although I often find myself being the one to rush into the silence to break it.

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