Always talk to your subject before you start the interview
If you only have a few minutes before you start the interview, talk for those few minutes. If not, talk while you are setting up the recording gear. This will give you a feel for the interaction to come, and will make someone who is nervous about being interviewed feel more comfortable before the microphone comes out. If you have more than a minute or two, talk to your subject about what they expect from the interview, and tell them what you expect. Tell them who the audience is. Don’t talk too much about the interview topic itself or you might end up with a lot of confusing answers that start with “Like I told you before…”
If you are interviewing someone for their story or opinion, ask them what they would like to have covered before you start. Remember, you don’t have to use everything you record, and they may present you with an angle you hadn’t thought of before.
This isn’t always completely doable, but you should always be prepared to the best of your ability. Know your interviewee and how they fit into what you are trying to do. Know the kinds of things you are going to discuss. Always make sure your recorder and headphones are working properly before you start. The “talk to your subject time” can help you test your equipment and feel some of these things out.
When you are doing your first interviews, approach it as kind of like being a lawyer: don’t ask questions you don’t really know the answers to. Of course this is a rule to throw out as you get better, but it is a good way to start out with confidence.
If you prepare questions beforehand, don’t read them verbatim from the page!
I rarely have prepared questions, as I prefer to just have a conversation that follows the theme I keep in my head. Doing it this way makes transitions from one topic to the next more natural, and keeps you from sounding like a robot when reading the questions.
If you must write out your questions (this is actually a good idea when you are starting out), don’t read them from the page. It is better to write out notes or sentence fragments instead of full-blown questions — it forces you to make up the actual wording of the questions on the fly and makes the conversation more natural-sounding.
Make it a conversation
This goes along with the previous tip, but is worth expanding upon a bit. If you were talking to a friend, you would react, interrupt with questions, and stray from the topic a bit. Do the same things in an interview. If something amazing or funny is said, go ahead and react to it. The listeners will follow your lead and be drawn further into the interview.
Of course, there can always be too much of a good thing, so make sure that your interviewee is doing the vast majority of the talking. All I’m saying here is that you don’t have to be an interviewing machine; you should be yourself, but in a background-kind-of-way. Your personality should be evident in the interview, but it should not be dominant. You are interviewing your subject, not yourself.
Avoid yes-or-no questions
One-word answers don’t make for very interesting listening. Instead, ask open-ended questions: “Why did you … ?” is better than “Did you do that because … ?”
If you do slip up and ask a yes or no question, don’t accept a one-word answer. A good trick for this is to just remain silent after the answer is given rather than jumping right back into the interview. A little uncomfortable silence can go a long way — your subject may just keep talking to make the situation less awkward and you’ll have what you need. Of course if this doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to ask your question again or ask your subject to explain further.
Get what you need. Interrupt if you have to.
On the other hand, if your subject is droning on about something you think is unnecessary, jump in with another question. If they say something you think the audience will be confused by, act confused yourself and ask for clarification. If you are really unhappy with the way an answer is going, try to find a way to come back to the topic. If that doesn’t work, come up with a reason that you have to start that part over (say you heard something strange in your headphones, or that the recorder’s battery is dying if you have to). As a last resort, explain to the person — as diplomatically as possible — that you aren’t getting what you need and would like to do the section again, offering suggestions to make this second take the better one.
Don’t be too smart
Unless the interview is billed as a discussion between peers (e.g. you are a security expert talking to another security expert and the audience is just listening in), the interview is about the interviewee, not the interviewer. Keep your questions short without making them abrupt. Don’t answer your own question while asking it. Don’t use complicated technical language to show you know the topic unless your audience will also understand that language. If you think your audience might need clarification of a statement, ask for that clarification even if you understood it perfectly.
Basically, put yourself in the listeners’ shoes while you interview. If your mom (or your children, or your astrophysicist uncle, depending upon who your target audience is) would understand what is being said, keep going. If not, clarify or do it over.
The end of the interview isn’t the end of the interview
When you are done, thank the person for their time and ask them how they thought it went. They may want to redo a part you also thought was weak, or tell a story you didn’t ask about. That second part is very important — always ask if there is anything else they’d like to cover. I’ve discovered important points (and even whole wonderful stories) that I knew nothing about just by asking if it felt like we’d left anything out.
Oh, and leave the recorder on while you talk afterwards! Even if you don’t get a good recording of something valuable, you’ll have a way to accurately re-tell the story yourself if you need to. (If you listen to the end of my Bob the Evangelist episode of Boston Behind the Scenes in the player below, you’ll hear me do just that.)
If all else fails
If you find yourself thrown into an interview situation without some time to prepare, don’t panic! If it fits the situation (and in many cases it does) you can always ask:
“What did you think this was going to be like before you started, and then what was it really like?” (I got this from NPR’s Noah Adams)
You’re guaranteed to get a story of some kind.
Lastly, PRACTICE and LISTEN
You get better at anything through practice and the observation of those who do it well. Therefore, you need to interview people to learn how to interview people. So pick up you recorder and go out there. Interview friends and family and strangers. Always record your interviews, even if they “don’t count” — you might just get a great recording of Grandma you can share with the kids someday.
And when you are on your way to those interviews, listen to interviewers you like. Don’t copy their style, but certainly learn from it. If you listen to the best, you have something to aspire to — and you’ll be inspired when it is time to take out the recorder.