Part of writing creative non-fiction is that sometimes you need to interview someone. You might just need a few quotes for a post, or you may need an expert to explain an entire concept to you. No matter what you need to use the interview for, you can make it easier on yourself and the interviewee by knowing how to conduct a good interview.
Do your research.
This is one of the most important things you can do to prepare for a great interview. You need to do your research.
Imagine you show up at an event and you don’t know anything about the person you’re interviewing. How are you supposed to ask them questions?
You can’t just prepare your questions in advance because an answer to one question may prompt you to think of another question, and that’s great. You want to know as much about the subject as possible, be it the person themselves or something else that you’re interviewing the person about.
Do research before you head in so you’re able to think of smart, interesting questions on the fly when something is said that calls for more elaboration.
A lot of times they’ll also bring up something you might not have thought of, or found in your research. Having the research and knowledge you already have will help out in those situations, too. You’ll be able to prompt them to elaborate properly on a subject they’ve mentioned when you know enough around it to ask the right questions.
While you’re researching, look for past interviews. Research as many past interviews with this person, or about this subject as possible. Some of them will have questions you’ll want to use, but it’ll also tell you what questions haven’t been asked before. Try to find questions that have never been asked. Interviewees who have been through tens or hundreds of interviews will always be thankful for new and interesting questions they haven’t been asked before.
Make sure the interviewee is comfortable.
You don’t want to have an uncomfortable interviewee because they’ll be trying to get out of the interview as quickly as possible. You’re not the paparazzi. You’re a creative non-fiction writer.
Don’t be pushy, and don’t ask anything too personal unless it has been specifically agreed upon by the interviewee themselves that the questions are okay. If you don’t know if a question is okay, be on the safe side and don’t ask. Or, save it until the end if you think it’s really necessary to the piece you’re writing.
You’ll want to make sure the surroundings are comfortable as well. If you caught them in public or somewhere such as after a concert, make sure they’re not being surrounded by fans or signing autographs or in a really loud area where you’re going to have to yell your questions and listen close for the answers.
Open up with a joke or two, even if it’s before the questions. If you’re a fan of them, let them know. Tell them what your favorite thing they did was. Then jump into the interview.
You could also open up with some easy questions that give the interviewee a chance to talk themselves up. I don’t mean self promotion questions, but stuff like “how did you feel when you were asked to play this festival?” You don’t necessarily have to use these warm up questions in the final piece; the point is just to get the interviewee comfortable and talking. People like to talk about themselves, especially their achievements, so try to start there.
You don’t want your interviewee to be uncomfortable at all or else they won’t open up.
Open with something they definitely know about.
Let’s say you’re writing a piece on a music festival. You’ll probably end up talking to a lot of other concert attendees, but what if you get a chance to talk to a band? Don’t lead off with something like “Have you been to our town before?”
You don’t want to ask yes or no questions, but we’ll get to that later.
An alternative would be, “what do you think of our town?” That’s actually also a poor example of what you should ask. Don’t ask about things they could possibly have an “I don’t know” answer to.
You want to start off with something they know for sure. Ask them what other shows they’ve played lately. What it was like starting a band in their town. How do they feel when they’re up on stage in front of a festival worth of people? Get them talking about things they know and enjoy and they’ll open up a lot quicker.
Never ask yes or no questions.
All questions you ask need to be open-ended. If you absolutely have to ask a yes or no question, then you need to have a follow up open-ended question to get your real quote.
If you ask people yes or no questions, they often answer in yes or no. They won’t talk and you won’t get any good quotes. It’ll be a terribly boring interview.
Instead of, “have you been to our town before,” ask, “what did you think of our town?”
Don’t stick strictly to your pre-selected questions.
As mentioned before, sometimes an interviewee will say something you didn’t think about or completely didn’t know about. Or, maybe they just say something that you realize will open up a new, better angle for your piece. At that point, don’t worry about sticking to your pre-selected questions. Ask them more about that thing.
Just because you planned doesn’t mean you have to stick to the plan.
Learn to be a little improvisational with your interviews in this way so that you’re able to get all the best information you can. Your pieces will be far more interesting and educational.
Give them time to answer.
Sometimes people pause to think. That’s okay, and in fact encouraged. What they say next might be exactly what you need.
Wait until you’re sure someone has finished answering their question before you move on to the next one. Moments of silence will be okay.
Ask “looking back” style questions.
Another common interview question is the “looking back…” question. These are questions that prompt the interviewee to, well, look back upon the event.
“Looking back, would you have done anything differently if you know what you know now,” is a pretty easy one.
Be creative and come up with some unique ones. You are a creative writer, after all!
In the future, we’ll talk about how to come up with good interview questions. If you have any questions about writing creative non-fiction, shoot me an email by filling out the contact form. I’d love to help you out with anything you don’t understand.
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