I’m sure you’ve noticed – many magazine articles take the form of interviews. There’s a good reason for it. Readers are interested in what people have to say: their experiences, their feelings, their story. Hearing it straight from the source resonates more deeply than someone else’s dry second or third hand account. Interviews are also popular with writers: it doesn’t matter if you don’t know it all, just ask someone who does! Otherwise, magazine writers would run out of material very fast.
So how do you go about conducting an interview for an article you’d like to write? These are the steps I teach students in my magazine writing workshops.
1. Finding interview subjects
Often the first question I’m asked is, ‘Who do I interview’? Of course it depends on what your article is about, but consider the following avenues:
- Word of mouth / personal contacts
- Support groups
- Local clubs and societies
- Business operators and professionals
- Media liaison units of big companies, government agencies or universities
Let’s make it more concrete. Say I’m writing an article about children who suffer depression. I might want to contact a university professor or a practising psychologist. I might also want to talk to some parents, who I could find through a support group.
2. Making contact
Explain the point of your article to the person you wish to interview. Describe your readership so they know who the article is aimed at. For instance, if I’m writing the child depression article for a parenting magazine, I want to make sure the professor knows s/he is talking to parents, not uni students or peers.
If possible, line up a face-to-face interview. This gives you the chance to build up a rapport, and you’ll get far more out of the interview. However, this may not be practical for any number of reasons, such as distance, time, number of interview subjects. Consider conducting the interview by phone or even email. The interviewee might also have a preference, ask what suits them.
3. Preparing for the interview
Prepare your questions in advance. Consider the key issues: who, what, where, when and why. Try to use questions that encourage full answers, not simply ‘no’ or ‘yes’. The aim is to get them talking! Beware of asking what lawyers call ‘leading questions’ – that is, questions that suggest their own answers. You do not want to be accused of putting words into your interviewee’s mouths. Let them tell their story, their way. However, if they talk for too long about irrelevant issues, it helps to have some questions ready to nudge them back onto the right path.
4. Conducting the interview
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Look and act professional. It’s best if you can record the interview, but you should ask for permission first. If they’re not comfortable with being recorded, make sure you take comprehensive notes.
Start the interview off with some simple background questions to put the interviewee at ease. In the previous step I said to prepare your questions in advance. Here I’m going to contradict myself a bit. Don’t stick to your plan too rigidly. Listen to what the interviewee has to say, and respond accordingly. They might raise something totally unexpected that leads to something better than you originally anticipated. Your planned questions are a guide only. Be open to new directions that may interest your readers.
Send an email thanking your interview subject for their time and assistance. Check any facts that you’ve been given – just because someone told you something, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true! Write up the article while the interview is still fresh and, if necessary, clarify anything you might have misunderstood. Once the article is published, they’d appreciate another quick email telling them about it.