An interview with Celeste A. Peters.
Interviews can be entertaining, informative or a disaster. There are three types of interview styles: personal audio/visual (podcast, television, radio); written (email communications); and personal converted to written. It isn’t the type of interview that makes it good – it’s the ability to conduct the interview, to transform what you’ve learned into an appealing story. To learn more about how to conduct a successful interview, I asked Celeste A. Peters about interviewing tricks and techniques. She’s interviewed a broad spectrum of people including politicians, scientists, farmers and medical patients.
You’ve interviewed an array of people from different professions and in different walks of life. How do you handle your nerves when you’re interviewing someone you admire, someone who in your mind has great status or authority? Is there a difference in how you approach that person versus someone else?
I’ve found that conducting an interview with respect and an air of confidence garners the best results, regardless of the status of the person being interviewed. Sure, it can take time to develop your confidence, though. To do so, conduct all of your interviews as though the person you’re interviewing is a head of state. Just don’t tackle an actual high-level interview your very first time out.
You’ve done your prep, you’ve got your notes and your questions, yet the interviewee takes you off on a tangent. What do you do?
If the tangent seems littered with material that’s relevant to your other questions, it might be worthwhile to let the person ramble for a while. Sometimes they provide valuable material you never thought of asking about. On the other hand, if you’ve got limited time for the interview, you might interrupt and say something like, “That sounds so interesting, but I’m afraid we’ll run out of time if we go there right now. We were talking about X…” The interviewee usually gets the hint.
How do you prepare your questions? And how do you ask them? I mean, is it a good idea to ask personal questions first to become comfortable, a mix of light hearted questions and pointed questions, or do you just get to the heart of the interview, the nitty-gritty?
Before the interview, determine why you need it; is it to collect information, obtain someone’s opinion on a topic, or a mix of both? Also define your target market for the resulting written piece. This will determine the depth of the questions you prepare. Next, research what material is already easily available on the topic or individual. What unique angle can you bring? If you’re doing an on-spec piece, this will be critical. If you’re writing on assignment, the nature of your questions might be determined by your employer. Then prioritize your list of questions: know what information you absolutely must not come away without. And, finally, arrange the order of your questions. Lead with one or two easy, perhaps light-hearted questions, followed by the meat of your interview, then any questions you deem a ‘bonus’ if answered. And be certain to arrange with your interviewee beforehand—preferably when you book the interview—how much time is available. If it’s less than you expected, you’ll need to pare down your list.
What is the most challenging interview you’ve conducted and how did you handle it?
No single interview stands out as ‘most challenging’. I have had to interview what I’d call ‘reluctant’ interviewees, though. I once was hired to write the big, glossy PR book for the Canadian branch of a multinational company. Some of the department heads only granted an interview because they were ordered to. I eventually got all the information I needed by remaining serious in demeanor and strictly professional in approach, and by asking for the name and number of someone else in their department who could flesh out material they decided they didn’t have the time or inclination to cover.
Time has run out and there are still unanswered questions. What’s the best way to handle that situation?
If you don’t finish the interview within the specified time, you might want to estimate how much more time is needed and request the interview keep going if convenient or request another meeting. Neither of these moves is optimal though; this is where prioritizing your questions beforehand comes in handy. Are the ones still unanswered just your bonus questions or do they include one or more of your critical questions?
What are your thoughts on an interviewee wanting to see the final product before it’s released?
If you’re writing a piece of journalism, politely, but firmly, decline. Period. Some employers even forbid it outright. The interviewee has said what they said—you should have a voice recording or, at very least, detailed notes to prove it. How you incorporate it into your work is up to you. If you have any doubt whatsoever you’ve understood what they were saying, ask them to verify the quote or clarify the piece of information you are planning to use—and nothing more. If you’re writing something other than a work of journalism, use your judgment. For example, on my first book I worked closely with a leading researcher in the field of Seasonal Affective Disorder; his feedback on my first draft was essential.
Is any question ever too big or too small?
Depends on the scope of what you plan to write as a result of the interview. For example, you don’t want to ask someone to summarize their entire life if what you plan to write will focus on a single incident.
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you want readers to know?
Check your ego at the door. No matter how much you personally know about a topic, ask questions from your least educated reader’s point of view. This means you will need to ask questions that might make you look ridiculously uninformed in the eyes of your interviewee, but this way you get the answer in their words, from their point of view, not yours. Sometimes, I’ve even found my preconception of what their answer would be was way off track. Those were humbling learning moments.
Now for the big question: What style of interview did I use to interview Celeste? Was it personal audio/visual (podcast, television, radio), written (emails), or personal converted to written?
How informative! Of course, I guess I knew somewhere in the back of my head that interviewers were professionals with a body of knowledge and a skill set, but I never thought about it. This article really taught me a lot about something I always took for granted (and you asked great questions!).
Thanks Susan! Celeste made a lot of good points and I value her insights. I like doing interviews but they are a lot of work even if I know someone. Part of that is wanting to conduct an interesting interview but it is also a desire to understand the interviewee so that the questions aren’t superficial. For example, my interviews with horror writer Craig DiLouie involved reading his work, researching other interviews and reading other things he’d written because I wanted to ask him questions he’d never been asked before, or at least to approach familiar territory in a fresh way so I could make it interesting for him too. You can read those interviews On Delivering Fear Effectively; and On Why Nice Guys Write Horror. Just type Craig Dilouie in the search bar and they’ll appear!
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