Every writer finds themselves blocked from time to time. Maybe you’re overwhelmed. Maybe you’re tired. Maybe you’re just sick of telling the same old familiar stories from your own life.
Or maybe, like me, you love to peek into a new world. Seeing what life looks like through others’ eyes can explode your worldview. It not only provides excellent fodder for your writing–it also challenges your everyday assumptions.
But interviewing people can be challenging. As a PhD-trained social scientist, I spent years developing my approach. I needed to learn how to draw out people’s most profound experiences to push beyond the answers my research subjects had prepared. (Let’s face it–when you ask someone for an interview, most people prepare what they want to say.)
I wanted to get them raw, unfiltered, and honest.
As a ghostwriter, this skill is crucial. I have to build immediate rapport so my clients open up to me and tell me the truth, even when it hurts. Sometimes, an interview can be used almost word-for-word once restructured and edited. It took me a lot of practice to get to that point, and in this blog post, I want to share some of my secrets for getting the most out of an interview.
First, a note. While I’m writing this from the perspective of a ghostwriter, almost any kind of writer can benefit from developing their interview skills. Journalists are an obvious example–if they can’t get their subjects to loosen up and be straight with them, they’re not likely to find the real truth of the matter. But becoming a skilled interviewer can also help writers develop more natural dialogue, step inside different perspectives, and form lifelong friendships.
Fortunately, the world of qualitative social sciences has many research-backed tips for making every interview count.
Start with the Easy Stuff
The key to starting your interview right is to put your subject at ease. The best way to do that? Ask them to share something easy. When you find something your subject is just bursting to share, the wall of distrust falls away almost instantly.
How do you know what’s easy? Think about what your subject cares about.
For instance, when my co-author and I were researching our popular article on Beyoncé fandom, we had several topics we wanted to cover. We were actually interested in what these fans made of Lemonade, which had just come out a month earlier. Since that visual album is so rich with imagery about race, gender, and history, we hoped to get participants to open up about how the album shaped their perceptions of those topics.
But imagine we tried to start there. Imagine we started the interview by asking, “How did Lemonade shape your perspective on race, gender, and history?”
Uhhhhhh. To be honest, I’m not even sure I could answer that!
Instead, we started by getting folks talking. We opened by asking whether our subjects considered themselves Beyoncé fans (Duh! Obviously!) and how long they had listened to her music. We didn’t linger on that question long. We moved immediately into the gold–when did you first listen to Lemonade?
The answers poured out. People recounted where they were, who they were with, and how they felt–some even acted out their emotions, making vivid facial expressions. Many stopped speaking to us like interviewers and started talking to us like friends. From that point forward, every question just grew in intensity. We got them started on something they loved–who doesn’t love an opportunity to share your most exciting ideas with someone who is truly interested?!
Be Truly Interested
You want to know what your subject has to say, right? Otherwise, you wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of setting up the interview. But when life gets busy, it’s easy to get sucked into our own heads. We stop listening to our subjects, our minds focused on our to-do lists.
People can tell when you’re not really listening. Nothing shuts down a subject faster than an interviewer whose eyes have glazed over.
In conversations, we’re used to using our energy to give and take–we listen and reply, listen and reply, listen and reply. But interviews work best when you listen more and reply less. Try to really find the fascinating details of their answers.
The best way to approach this is by tapping into your curiosity. Yes, you’re trying to write a book or article. And, sure, you need to keep your subject on topic.
But often, we have no idea what our subject can teach us! I started many research studies believing I wanted to study one thing, only to find that my participants had other ideas–much, much better ideas!
Listening with curiosity takes some practice, but it’s a skill that pays off in every avenue of our lives. Sit back and try to relax as much as you can (I know you’re nervous and busy, so think of the interview as a safe haven–a chance to pause and be still). And when your subject says something interesting, tell them so. Your follow-up doesn’t need to be polished. It can be as simple as, “Oh, wow! That’s fascinating! Tell me more!” Nine times out of ten, your subject will pause, tilt their head to the side, and think for a few seconds. Then, they’ll share something exciting!
Share Things About Yourself
While it’s important to listen, the goal of any interview should be to create a relaxed, conversational environment–think of having coffee with a close friend. To do that, you’re going to have to share some things about yourself.
Do you love the same coffee cake their grandpa was hooked on? Are you, too, an avid knitter? Have you visited the rural school their sister attended?
If so, tell your subject.
That last example–having visited an unknown, rural school–really happened to me with a client. His sister had attended a tiny community college not far from my hometown. When I shared that, he said, “Oh wow. It’s almost like this was meant to be or something.”
True story. We were instantly bonded!
There’s research to back this up, by the way. We’re much more likely to be open and honest with people we see as like us. So go ahead and open up. Don’t dominate the conversation (see above!), but don’t pretend to be “objective” either. We all bring our experiences to every interview. When we show our subject we’re like them–and when we match their disclosure with our own–we build immediate rapport.
Have a Few Follow-Ups Ready
Social scientists have a few tricks up their sleeves when it comes to interviewing. My favorite? The “tour question.” When you ask a tour question, you ask your subject to proverbially show you around their memory. In reality, it might go something like this.
Subject: “We lived in this tiny house right at the edge of the city. [laughs] It was…something.”
Interviewer: “Oh? What was it like.”
Subject: “We were just really poor. My mom did her best, but that house was a mess.”
The subject isn’t sharing much, but they don’t seem to be hiding anything, either. They just aren’t sure how to tell you what the house was like.
This is the perfect time for a tour question.
Interviewer: “I totally get it. I want to get a better sense of the details. Can you imagine taking me on a tour of the house? When you walked in the front door, what was to your left?”
You’ll be surprised at how much easier it is for subjects to explain the juicy details when you give them a concrete framework. The tour question has never failed me! And the best part? It always sounds pretty much the same, so you don’t have to rack your brain for a follow-up. Just let the tour question pour out and watch the magic happen.
Other surprisingly effective catch-all follow-ups include:
“Oh, wow! Seriously?!” (I know, I know, this sounds ridiculous. But what you’re doing is giving your subject permission to lean into the extreme details of the story. In the right context, it works really well!)
“How did you deal with that?”
“Why do you think she said that?”
“What did you say?”
Yes, it’s good to have specific follow-ups, too, but having a few generic ones ready can come in handy.
Knowing how to interview people for a story is crucial for any journalist or writer. It is essential for getting accurate information, providing valuable insights and perspectives, developing compelling characters, establishing rapport with sources, and improving efficiency and effectiveness. Whether you are writing news, features, or fiction, knowing how to conduct compelling interviews is an essential part of the research process and can make a significant difference in the quality of your work.