Today’s guest post is from author Christina Katz. Her most recent book is The Writer’s Workout.
Not too long ago I received a formal interview request, which was well executed, so I said I would make time for the interview. Once we got on the phone, the interviewer said, “Okay, go ahead.”
I thought, “Oh no.”
I probably should have bailed, but I am a writing coach, so I suggested that she ask me some questions and I would answer them for her. I hoped she was actually taking notes and planning to give me credit for my words and ideas—otherwise known as an interview—but I did not feel a whole lot of confidence in the process.
More than anything, what I was thinking was, “I took time out of a busy day for this.” But I did not say that, because no matter what, it’s always an honor to be asked for an interview.
As a journalist who eventually became an expert, who still conducts interviews and teaches aspiring journalists, I continually move back and forth between the two sides of the interviewer vs. expert equation.
I don’t view either role—expert or interviewer—as superior to the other, but I will say this: I had to earn the role of expert whereas the role of journalist was one I could learn by doing.
Lately, when I am approached for an interview, I find myself wishing journalists would spend more energy on formality and operate with more professionalism. We are living in the age of lazy journalism, where experts receive a steady barrage of requests, and are bound to become weary from time request overload.
So, listen up, journalists—and yes, I mean you, blogger, you, aspiring novelist, and all of the rest of you, writers. Chances are very good that you will eventually interview someone about something. And you should take the time to get it right.
Whether or not you enjoy interviewing is less important than doing it well. Ultimately how well you prepare and manage the interview will dictate the ultimate success (or failure) of your article or interview. Here are five tips for conducting a successful interview:
1. Think of yourself as a professional thief. You steal people’s time. You steal people’s expertise. You are asking a source you approach to give you their words so you can create something. If you can be thoughtful and prepared enough for the interview that the source thanks you afterward for stealing away their time, then you have done a good job.
2. Approach experts with professionalism every step of the way. Do not approach experts publicly. Do not approach experts using social media (unless you are already connected in real life). Do not act presumptuously. Do not ask for “coffee” or “to pick her brain.” Find your target source’s website and check for guidelines to approaching. Find the correct e-mail and identify your request as an interview request in the subject line. Example: “Interview Request for Parents Magazine” from [insert your name here]”
3. Practice on your friends. If you are nervous about interviewing, but you need to do it anyway, start by interviewing your friends, but approach them as formally as you would a mega-celebrity. Practice your skills until you feel comfortable using the same skills with people you don’t already know. Or begin with experts lower on the celebrity totem pole and work your way up.
4. Get your interview request right. Identify yourself as a professional writer. Identify the publication you are writing for or hoping to write for. Identify how much time you are asking for. Identify how prepared you are to conduct a quick and quality interview by refering to the expert’s body of work. Identify how you wish to conduct the interview. Thank the source ahead of time for taking the time to read your request. Include everything the source needs to make a decision in one concise e-mail request.
5. Operate with genuine appreciation of your source. Appreciate the acceptance of an interview request. Say thank you over and over throughout the interaction. Appreciate the time your source is taking away from their day. Appreciate every moment of the process. You don’t have to fawn over the person or put them on a pedestal. But you want your interviewee to remember that you were respectful and gracious.
Many writers experience anxiety about interviewing experts. But then again, many writers experience anxiety about just about everything.
Just remember that managing your anxiety is your job. Take steps to calm your concerns ahead of time, or put them aside in the short run so you can conduct a solid interview.
When the shoe is on the other foot and you are the expert, here’s what you need to keep in mind:
1. Ask questions yourself. You were the interviewer once, and you likely will be again. At the very least, hopefully, you are still a person who enjoys asking questions as much as answering them. Ask the journalist how her day is going, if she enjoys interviewing, or what the weather is like in Kansas today.
2. Don’t lose your cool. It’s up to you to inspire positive results in any journalistic work you participate in. If you lose your focus just because the interviewer is blowing it, the article is even more likely to stink. Make as positive an impact on the outcome as you can.
3. Expect respect and give it back. If you are asked for your opinion then that’s respect. It’s always an honor to be asked for your opinion, no matter how the interview goes. So be respectful of the folks in the interview trenches.
4. Enjoy the process. An interview is another opportunity to expand on your ideas and come up with something fresh you may not have come up with before, especially if you’re asked intelligent questions. If the conversation goes beyond the usual sound bites, than you owe your interviewer some appreciation.
5. Improve the outcome next time. Making time to be interviewed is an important part of your ongoing platform development. You can influence the outcome for the best by preparing a solid media kit including a list of suggested questions, sending out press releases, and stating your interview policies on your site.
I am a journalist who became an interview source, who will likely be right back to interviewing tomorrow. But I’m grateful to hop back into the interviewing trenches over and over. To research a source. To ask intelligent questions. To winnow my questions down to just the best few. To make my questions so thoughtful that the source says, “Oh, that’s a good question.”
I’m an expert, but I’ll be the interviewer again, because formal interviews with experts yield the freshest ideas. And the most up-to-date information is always the best source material for any type of writing that’s worth reading.
What tips do you have to share from your interview experience? Any do’s and don’ts you’ve learned the hard way?