"An interview is just a conversation between a writer and somebody who knows something the writer does not..." says Philip Gerard in his book Creative Nonfiction.
You as the writer need to make the best use of the "conversation." Chances are, you have limited time, may even be under a deadline. Moreover, you don't want to come off as an idiot or only end up with information that is irrelevant or redundant for your final piece--whether it's an article that uses direct quotes or a report that indirectly uses what you have gleaned.
The most important thing to do is to listen. Not try to impress the interviewee. Not think ahead to the next question. Not worry if your tape recorder will run out of batteries or your pen will run out of ink.
In addition, a few techniques that have worked for me:
- Give your subject a general idea of what you will be asking about, but not a specific list of questions.They can focus their thoughts beforehand but not overly so. You have more freedom, rather than having your subject finish question #2, for instance, and then move on to question #3. (Of course, you will prepare for the interview and not assume you can go in and wing it in a casual give-and-take.)
- Combine closed- and open-ended questions. Just as a written piece encompasses sentences of different lengths, an interview needs different punctuation. For example, in moving to a new topic, you might establish where or when something took place (a closed question), then start probing about his or her reaction to the event.
- Do not fill every silence. Our tendency is to jump in with another question. Resist. Give your subjects time. Give them the opportunity to add to what they said. A gentle "anything else?" sometimes elicits the most interesting responses.
I am continually learning how to improve my interviews. Sometimes they are great, sometimes a little mundane, depending on the "somebody," the topic, my own preparation, the time constraints, and other variables.
In search of wisdom from others, I asked Mary Collins, a nonfiction writing professor and author of books that have required extensive interviewing, for some tips.
Here's what she said:
- I let them know early on that I know about their subject or work. For example, I cite a passage from their work or make it clear I have interviewed others on the same topic.
- I open with a few questions to which I know the answers, to know how candid they are being with me.
- I bring up something personal, even if not relevant to the interview, so we start to make a personal connection.
- I check online, for example on youtube or TED talks, to see what they have already said publicly about the topic, and don't repeat those questions.
- I make clear the interview is just a start, and the odds are high I will contact them again.
Gerard's book has a chapter on interviewing. Other resources on my shelf include The Craft of Interviewing by John Brady and Doing Oral History by Donald A. Ritchie.