image: the woman herself, writer, author, actress-director, performer Maxximillian Dafoe

How to Interview People — Tips and Best Practices

When I was in middle school, my mother, then a reporter for the #1 country music terrestrial radio station, got me into an advanced production program for budding television producers. I looked a lot older than my years at that age so even though I was by far the youngest in a group of about 12 people from 14-24 years old, I fit right in and was given the same challenges as the others in the group. I was in the program to learn three roles: interviewer, director-producer and camera operator.

We (as interviewers) were given some basic guidelines on interview technique (but not content) then instructed to come up with questions, write up our show notes and then, later that same day, we had to interview our ‘guest’ live as another budding journalist produced the episode on the fly in a multi-screen studio built into a corner of the set, directing and simultaneously producing a segment from the live feeds of 3 studio cameras, each with a live operator.

With the studio full of people but silent, the spotlights on me and my interview guest, darkness obscuring everything except for the human being sitting before me with shadows; I remember the intense feeling of being hyper aware of ‘the present moment’. Unexpectedly, it was mildly shocking. It was in that moment that I understood the dynamic of an interview situation, and the need for preparation and notes. I was relieved I had both. I took my time, allowing a moment of silence between my guest’s answers and my responses. I was having a deliberate conversation with a purpose to achieve and it felt good to feel myself achieving it along with my interview guest’s palpable enjoyment of our conversation. Very empowering. (Similar to that feeling for a comedian of making someone laugh when you set out to.)

These days my journalistic influence is NPR. I’ve made a study of NPR’s journalistic styles because I enjoy the way their various shows present their stories. Ira Glass and the other journalists presenting their interview pieces on THIS AMERICAN LIFE have been my unwitting teachers for the past 10 years as I’ve hungrily consumed their excellent content. This summer I’m launching my newest podcast Maxximillian Presents: THEMATIC — at its essence, it’s interviews with people.

To prepare myself for this, and to brush up on my skills, I paid for an online course from CreativeLive called
Power Your Podcast With Storytelling — I highly and personally recommend this course, by the way.

I wrote about it here, if you think you might be interested in taking some of their free courses (taught by experts) yourself, check it out!

I told you about my love for THIS AMERICAN LIFE so who better to learn from than the man himself, the show’s long-time producer Alex Blumberg—his class Power Your Podcast With Storytelling was very helpful and instructive on how to recognize where the story is in your subject (the person you’re interviewing); he also does an interview with a live person from beginning to end (‘end’ being a produced interview segment). He illustrates his process of discovering the best angle to present the story from, and takes you through discovering the richest part of the story your guest has to offer. Alex also teaches how to plan an interview. Seriously, I can’t recommend this course enough. It’s a game-changer.

To date, I’ve interviewed singer-songwriters, authors, other journalists and writer-directors, actors, data analysts, U.S. veterans retired from active duty in Afghanistan, executive producers, music producers, fiction writers, random interesting strangers, anonymous people in the foodservice industry, video game authors, registered nurses, ER personnel, prostitutes—mid-range and fancy ones, and the homeless and many others, in varying ranges of intimacy. (If you’d like to have a listen, to some upcoming episodes, here’s the link.)

Most recently I interviewed ‘regular folks’ (there’s really no such thing) about their so-called average lives for a show I’m writing. My television series that I interviewed them for is a plot-driven show but I feel I can offer my audience more if I bring into the lives of my characters some ‘problems of life’ and illustrate through the triumphs of my characters how to successfully solve those problems.

There’s a couple I know—they always wow me with their stories. One story in particular, a story they told me about their adventures surrounding a house they once rented including a slumlord landlord to rival any villain, caught in my craw, and I realized that this couple’s trials and tribulations could service the main characters of my plot-driven show. The real life couple’s real life ‘problems of life’ situations would give my fictional characters a fuller life. Having petty antagonistic domestic dramas and plumbing malfunctions in the midst of a political-social revolt seemed to me to be just the thing to bring everyday familiarity to an ‘out-there’ narrative—because bad neighbors are still bad neighbors, even in the middle of a war. The rotten neighbors are still going to play their music too loud and let their dog poop in your yard even in the midst of chaos, and that is the kind of stuff that is missing sometimes in plot-driven stories. I’d been looking for a way to bring character intimacy into my story and from the minute I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks as I laughed at the antics of their evil landlord and rotten neighbors, I knew: I have to convince them to let me tell their story.

Here’s what I did…

When I left them that night, as soon as I was alone, before I could forget, I jotted down all the parts of their story I could recall that I knew I wanted to hear more about. I wrote it longhand using 2-3 word phrases and bullet points. After writing down all I could remember, I transcribed it to Evernote. (There is also a new note taking app called Bear Writer that’s worth a look, incredibly lovely app. If you’d like to hear a few reasons why I love it, give a listen to July’s first episode of the Audio Drama Production Podcast (ADPP) about writing software where I dish on all my favorite apps for professional writing of all kinds.)

Next, I sent each a text message asking if I could stop by for a short visit to ask them something. In person, as soon as I arrived, I told them something like, “That story you told me about your landlord… I think it would make a great storyline for two characters in the television series I’m writing. Would you be willing to let me interview you?”

They said yes.

On our interview date, I jumped right in. I began by reminding them that I’d like for them to tell me about their house rental experiences. When they asked where to begin, I said to “begin where the problems began” and it worked out well. Whenever they got to a part in the story where backstory was needed, they filled it in—they did this naturally without any prompting from me. (I think it was best to do this rather than to ask them to “begin at the beginning” because that may have extended beyond the scope of my interest: the slumlord badness.)

Before I hit record, I let them know that I would record the conversation but not to think about that, just to speak naturally. My general rundown that I tell show guests (and anyone I interview) is this…

•     Nobody is going to hear this unedited recording except for me.

•      I won’t publish any part of this interview (unless it’s for the show, then I don’t say that—they want to be on the show, it’s why we’re recording).

•      Speak freely and know that I’ll only show you in a positive light.

•      If you say something and later think of a better way to say it, tell me so and I’ll use the ‘better’ comment/explanation instead.

•      Even if we’ve moved onto another topic, feel free to return to something we discussed previously if you have something to add.

How To Interview People

All of My best practices…

•     I ask for 50 minutes when interviewing people. Usually this is just the right amount of time to get what I need, or enough to know if I need a separate interview. I never go over the amount of time I ask for. It’s better to ask if they can spare a little more time or ask to schedule a second interview. Respecting people’s time is the number one way to show appreciation, I’ve found: Be on time; leave on time. 

•     I sometimes send questions ahead of time: Usually this is helpful. It gives guests a roadmap of what to expect. I think it’s important that I mention, I make it clear that I don’t want them to email me back their answers, that I’m just letting them know what to expect; I mention that there will be additional questions during the interview that spring from their answers but that these questions (the ones I sent) will definitely be asked. It’s helpful because it gets the guest thinking of the topic and gets their memory juiced up to discuss our topic, in effect priming the guest. It prevents the need for a guest to recall details on the fly during the interview which can result in the guest coming up with a lot of “ummm” and “I don’t know” during the interview. Most importantly, offering a short list of the interview questions puts the guest at ease. Why? Because they can see clearly that they already know the answers to the questions I’ll ask. Even though the interview is about them and they know all the answers, many people have something similar to test-taking anxiety when it comes to interviews where someone knows that they’re being recorded. Guests have thanked me for sending them the questions ahead of time. There are some guests who prefer to talk on the fly, and that’s fine. The interviewer sending the questions ahead of time is a courtesy, but not expected necessarily.

•     On Release Forms: if you don’t need one, don’t bother. Signing contracts make folks nervous sometimes; even a simple release form can be off-putting. Not all situations call for a release form. A few minutes googling the specifics of your project will let you know what’s appropriate. Generally, I haven’t needed one since I’m interviewing people to create a character on a show and I’m not using their voice, name, or likeness in my project. (Unless it’s for the THEMATIC show in which case I am totally using their name, voice and likeness—because they want me to, and it’s expected.) I think it’s worth mentioning that I have myself been a guest on a handful of talk shows and terrestrial radio shows and have never been presented with a release form to sign. YMMV

•     I have found it helpful to send the interview guest an email at 4 days, at 24 hours, and at 1 hour before the interview time with clear links to a map of the location (or the URL if it’s an online meeting along with any instructions for joining the conference—even if they already have it). And 10 minutes before the show time, I send a text basically saying: “Hi, it’s Maxximillian. Looking forward to our interview!”

•     I always show up (at least) 20 minutes ahead of time (even if it’s an online or teleconference meeting—guests sometimes need technical help setting up). And, invariably some people are early; if they are, I want to be there and ready to greet them.

•     Before I begin, I let them know that I haven’t hit record and ask if they have any questions before we begin. (And then I answer all their questions.)

•     I like to have room-temperature bottled water—on hand, at the ready—for myself and for my guest to drink—6 bottles is appropriate for 2 people.

•     If it’s an in person interview, I bring a gift. (My most well-received gifts are the potted rosemary, and basil, plants from Trader Joe’s. Inexpensive and cheerful. It seems even people who don’t cook much love fresh herbs growing on a sunny countertop in their kitchen. It’s also a good universal gift because some don’t drink and others have dietary issues, and everyone can enjoy a plant.)

•     About taking notes: I listen instead of taking notes. My full attention is upon the speaker, I find that I get better stories this way. I start recording, lay my phone down (or set up the mic) then completely ignore the recording device. If you use a voice recording app on your phone, it’s great because people are used to seeing phones lying around. Start it recording, turn off the screen display, lay it down and people will forget that it’s there recording everything. People have told me that they ‘forgot we were recording’ many times after an interview. (I have a shotgun mic by the way—but nobody ever “forgets” that we’re recording when I use this. Even though it’s the same equipment my journalistic spirit animal Alex Blumberg uses (and it makes me feel very professional), it’s impossible to forget that an interview is in progress when it’s in the room. Sometimes invisible equipment is the best; other times the guest wants to feel like they’re doing a ‘real’ interview. My general rule is: if it’s an intimate personal experience someone is sharing, invisible equipment is better. If it’s a story about a passion project or business related, the shotgun microphone is a favorite because it makes people feel ‘like an expert’.

•     When I’ve got all I came for from the interview — according to my notes, remember that bullet point list? — I pack up and thank my interview guest, and go.

•     I don’t offer to let them listen to the unedited interview. People are self-conscious and very few people enjoy listening to themselves talk on a recording.

•     I don’t take on any additional pressure to deliver beyond showing up to do the interview. If I’m publishing the interview, I share the link to their polished interview the day before (or on the same day) that I release it. I never make promises about the project because (and I don’t tell them this) sometimes, that project doesn’t happen all the way or by the date I anticipate—ask me how I know—why add needless pressure making promises?

•     If they ask about the finished project, I promise to keep them updated on the progress of it (and I do)—but ONLY if they ask.

•     I follow up with a physical thank you card whenever possible—email cards just ain't the same. ( I buy blank notes from a store called HomeGoods and use them exclusively for this purpose. )

•     If I had a good connection with the person, I add them to my personal holiday mailing list and include them in my professional holiday greetings. (Note: I don’t add them to any other mailing list or do any self-promotion in these greetings.)

Would you like a printable checklist? Let me know!

You Can Do It…

go for it and Take the course yourself!

Power Your Podcast With Storytelling taught by Alex Blumberg

 

Recent THEMATIC Interview Clips  (small sampling)

Full interviews coming soon—subscribe on iTunes and you’ll be the first to hear them! 🙂

My creative business journalism podcast Maxximillian Presents: THEMATIC is free to listen to and download on iTunes, Stitcher, PocketCasts, BlogTalkRadio, GooglePlay and wherever podcasts are found—and, of course, you’ll find all episodes, show notes, and episode extras on my blog at podcasts.maxximilliandafoe.com.

I hope you’ve found my share helpful. Reach out to me if you feel I can help you in any way. If you’d like to get in touch, stop by anytime and drop me a line on my podcasts home page

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