One of the things I love most about being a writer is meeting people from all walks of life. Whether it’s a public school teacher from a far-flung province, a running coach who guides underprivileged young athletes, or a big celebrity with multiple endorsements, each person has a unique and interesting story to tell. While I often feel inspired after each interview, there is also a huge pressure to write about the subject in a way that does justice to his or her story—and to write an article that people will want to read all the way to the end.
The key to writing a great story about a person starts with the interview. Below are a few tips I’ve learned on how to have a meaningful conversation with your interviewee. (Disclaimer: I am not a hard news reporter, so these tips will mostly apply to feature articles.)
1. Research on your subject. Before you meet the person you are interviewing, do your research. Read up on articles that have been written about her before. After all, you don’t want to write an article with information that already exists online. You need to find a different way to write about this person.
2. Prepare your questions in advance. Once you’ve learned more about your subject, prepare your list of questions according to the topic of the article you’re writing. If your focus is on a celebrity’s new movie, for instance, it probably won’t help to bring up an old showbiz issue that has already been resolved.
3. Be friendly and curious, without being intrusive. Respect your subject’s boundaries. If she clearly states that she doesn’t want to talk about a certain topic, don’t push the issue. I’ve learned that once your subject becomes uncomfortable, the more she won’t answer your questions!
4. Genuinely listen. Don’t interrupt the subject while she is talking. If she diverts from the topic, wait for a break in her train of thought before gently steering her back to your preferred topic.
5. Ask interesting, open-ended questions. If your questions are just answerable by “yes” or “no,” you won’t get the meat you need for your article. It also helps to ask unique questions that will allow your interviewee to give more substantial answers, instead of the usual spiel she gives other interviewers. (I love watching Vogue’s 73 Questions series. Some of their questions are pretty good and can be used for a standard interview.)
6. Ask follow up questions. If something isn’t clear, don’t be afraid to ask more questions. You don’t have to strictly follow your list. Sometimes the best stories come out of topics you weren’t even planning to talk about.
7. Be professional. I once went to a press conference for a popular boy band. During the Q&A portion, a lady from the press went to the mic and started gushing about the band for the next five minutes. This is probably fine at a fan meet-and-greet, but definitely not at a press con! If you’re interviewing someone you are a huge fan of, it’s okay to show your appreciation, but don’t waste his or her time with endless gushing.
8. Never make the interview about you. Many times, you’ll find yourself relating to your interviewee. Perhaps you had a similar experience to what she was talking about or you have similar views about a certain topic. Don’t hog the spotlight by talking about yourself!
9. Be open. Different people have different views. You are not there to debate with your subject. You are there to learn more about her story.
10. Enjoy the conversation. The best interviews are those where you feel like you’re just talking to a friend over coffee. So just relax and have fun!
Throwback to 2010 when I got the chance to interview Daniel Radcliffe over the phone. As a total Potterhead, it was a dream come true! It only lasted about five minutes (and my voice got very high after he said, “Hello, Angel!”) but I think I managed to keep my composure and write a good story, which was published in Candy magazine.