|By George Armstrong, FEMA Library, via Wikimedia Commons|
I talk in THIS post about making connections with experts (hint: they are often closer than you think). Today, I'd like to share some very basic tips about how to conduct an interview. These skills are sadly not taught much outside of journalism programs these days.
How to conduct a fiction research interview
- Begin by breaking the ice. Explain the kind of fiction you write and why you sought out this person’s help. A little flattery can warm up your subject, as can mentioning a mutual friend or acquaintance.
- Get the person’s permission to record the conversation, and clarify how you plan to use the information—as background or to lend authenticity to characters, setting, and plot. Many subjects are far more relaxed if they know they aren’t going to be directly cited and/or quoted like in a news story.
- Move on to an open-ended inquiry that gets the source talking about his or her favorite subject.
- Be sure to ask your most important question early on. If your interviewee is time pressed, they might end up cutting the interview short.
- Get in the habit of asking basic follow up questions to garner more detailed responses. “Why is that?” or “What do you mean?” can keep the person talking.
- Don’t be afraid to ask what might feel like naive questions. Even if you’ve done your homework, there are bound to be new ideas and terms that come up that you’re unfamiliar with. No one person can know know everything. Usually your source will be glad to fill in your knowledge gaps.
- You might need to keep circling back to a topic if the interviewee hasn’t adequately addressed it. That doesn’t necessarily mean the person is being evasive. Some people need to warm up when discussing a topic, or they’ll respond better if you reword a question. “I’m having trouble understanding what you meant by ____” or “could we go back to ____?” are gentle segues that won’t feel like a police interrogation.
- Endure awkward silences; they can be beneficial, as counterintuitive as that might sound. When a subject gives you a generic or rehearsed answer, don’t rush to keep the flow going by chattering away and zipping on to the next question. Instead, simply sit quietly and wait. Most of the time, your interviewee will sense you are anticipating more response and will oblige by volunteering more information.
- Give the subject an opportunity to sum up, or do a final fill-in. Ask, “Is there anything else you think I should know that I didn’t ask about?”
- Get permission to e-mail follow-up questions to them, or to a colleague or subordinate. Don’t assume this person can give you all the time in the world.
- Express your gratitude for their time and expertise. Follow up with written thanks, even if by e-mail or text message.
Helpful Resource: Garrett, Annette. Interviewing: Its Principles and Methods. New York: Family Association of America, 1982.
Does interviewing as part of your research excite or intimidate you? Why?