The Way of the Word

5. December 2009

About Interviews – Part 1 of 3

Filed under: writing — jensaltmann @ 10:58
Tags: , , , ,

Interviews are tricky things – for both sides.

The first question, for both the interviewer and the interviewee, is the setting. Is it an e-mail interview, a face-to-face interview, a phone interview, a roundtable or a press conference? That’s actually more important than the question of who you are going to interview. The who may have that whole coolness factor going on. Plus, it and the subject of the interview determine what you ask. But that’s settled with some research, which is the part that doesn’t change. The setting of the interview, however, is a major factor in determining how it will go.

The e-mail interview is the easiest. You prepare your questions, send them to the interviewee. The interviewee then mails you their answers. There may or may not be a follow up to one or two of the questions. But that’s it.

To be honest, I’m not sure if the face-to-face interview or the phone interview is more challenging. As the interviewer, you need to be on top of your game for either one. You can slack off a bit if you do a phone interview, simply because the interviewee doesn’t see you, but that’s also the biggest drawback: that you can’t see the interviewee. You can’t see their reactions to your questions, and it’s difficult to tell if they’re actually giving you their full attention, or if they are doing something else at the same time.

For both of these, you need to be about as well prepared as a lawyer in court. You need to know your subject, you need to prepare your questions. It doesn’t hurt to prepare more questions than you think you’ll need. I’ve had it happen that interviewees answered several questions with a single reply, or that an answer revealed that one of my prepared questions was off-beat (because it was based on misinformation, false assumptions, whatever). You also need to be ready to veer off-course, to toss aside whatever you’ve prepared if the interview takes a more interesting turn than you had anticipated.

Roundtables (where several interviewers sit at a table with the interviewee) and press conferences are easiest. You can even slack off a bit. There will be other interviewers asking questions. Odds are that the questions they have prepared are the same that you have prepared. So all you need to do is sit there, let them do the heavy lifting, and just record everything. I don’t recommend that, however. If you do that frequently, your editor will stop sending you to interview people, and it’s also frustrating. I know I was frustrated as heck when I was sent to a roundtable, and everyone else asked my questions before I got around to do it.

Working out the questions can be a major problem. You need to forget or at least ignore what you would like to ask. You need to figure out what your audience might want to know of the person you are going to interview. Why is this a problem? Because every other interviewer (at last the competent ones) are thinking along the same lines. Interviewers also need to consider how much their readership overlaps with that of other magazines whose writers are also going to interview that person.

That’s the explanation for why interviewers usually all ask similar questions, by the way.

What I try to do is dig a bit deeper, in order to find something that nobody else might think of, and that the interviewee might not expect. An example: I recently interviewed Mark Neveltine and Brian Taylor about their movie Gamer. During my research, I discovered that a lot of computer gamers complained on message boards about how the movie promotes the negative stereotypes of computer gaming. I pointed that out to them and asked them what they would tell those gamers. It turned out that they had no idea that gamers thought that way.

Tomorrow: Interviews are also tricky for the interviewee


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