As a financial copywriter I must often interview people face-to-face in order to be able to complete my work, whether it’s for a business article, an annual report or a press release.
Most people are happy to give interviews and will communicate freely and openly, but I do sometimes encounter interviewees who are more reticent, perhaps through shyness or concern about being misquoted.
My job is to ensure that interviews run smoothly and to establish a rapport with the interviewee so that I get all the information I need. The best interviews happen when the interviewee is happy with the process too.
Here are a few interviewing tips that I would like to pass along:
This probably goes without saying but it’s vitally important to do your background research on the person, the company and the subject you’ll be writing about before you sit down for the interview.
Put all your questions down on a sheet of paper and keep this handy in front of you. You might not get to ask all of them during the interview but it’s great to have the questions sheet as an aide-memoire.
Ensure, if at all possible, that your questions are such that only the interviewee can answer them. Don’t ask questions which you can easily get answered somewhere else.
Your questions should show that you have knowledge of the subject. Never ask questions which are vague, or open-ended, or which can simply be answered “yes” or “no”. Your questions should help you to achieve the goals of the interview – you want the interviewee to think and to talk.
Note – more often than not you will be asked to submit your questions ahead of the interview so that the company’s corporate communications team can “vet” them and to give the interviewee an opportunity to prepare his responses.
Arrive in Good Time
I always aim to arrive at the interview venue at least 10-15 minutes before the scheduled start time. This allows me to run through my list of questions and to gather my thoughts.
Starting the Interview
I like to put the interviewee at his ease – believe it or not even company chairmen sometimes get nervous at interviews, so I start with a quick introduction and an observation on something topical, to get the ball rolling. It’s important to smile and maintain positive body language in order to create a positive environment in the room.
I always exchange business cards with the people I’m interviewing – not only does this ensure that I get their names right but it also means that I get their job title right as well.
For lengthy interviews digital voice recorders are very useful. I always use one if I can, but not everyone is comfortable with these – always confirm with the interviewee before you ask your first question if it’s OK to use one. Be prepared for the interviewee to say no, and if this happens quickly put the device away with no fuss.
Listen Carefully and Clarify
Having prepared your list of questions make sure that you listen attentively to the answers. Never ask an interviewee a question that he has already answered, unless you’re doing so to clarify a point – doing so out of inattention can ruin an interview.
If an interviewee gives a response that you don’t understand don’t be afraid to seek clarification, but always do this politely. Never try to pretend that you know more than you do as you will be “found out” later on.
Often an interviewee’s answers will lead naturally to the next question. While you have your list of prepared questions bear in mind that interviews rarely proceed according to these as interviewees’ answers may jump around from topic to topic. Be prepared for this. You must try to master the art of framing good follow-up questions “on the hoof”. Do this and you will get good interviews, but it requires that you listen carefully to what the interviewee is saying.
Never Be Confrontational
There will be times when you will interview people who are difficult or unco-operative, people who are shy, or evasive, or monosyllabic or who look like they don’t want to be in the room with you. There can be many reasons for this (not worth going into here) but if you encounter such situations there is absolutely nothing to be gained by being confrontational yourself. Whatever the situation you must plough on and try and get the interview done, however uncomfortable this may be for both of you.
Closing an Interview
As a general rule there will be a fixed amount of time allocated for an interview. It’s important that the interviewer keeps track of time during the interview and covers all the ground without an unseemly rush of questions at the end. Equally, if a 60 minute interview seems to be coming to a natural conclusion after 45 minutes, don’t be afraid to say something like this to the interviewee…”well that concludes my questions for the interview, thank you very much”.
It is useful at this point to give the interviewee the opportunity to add any other thoughts he has which were not covered in the interview questions. I often find that this sort of “free format” session after the prepared questions have been answered yields very useful material for the interview.
Interviewing people can be quite a challenging task, but it is an essential one in many types of writing assignment. If you prepare well and follow these tips you’ll find that the task gets easier.
Steve Shaw, Bishopsgate Copywriting
Bishopsgate Copywriting are based in Sevenoaks, Kent. We specialise in financial and business copywriting and copyediting for websites and print media.