Interviewing a Subject

It has struck me that having to interview a subject as part of an assignment is something that is not as straight forward as I thought. Interviewing someone for a job is not the same as interviewing a subject that you are then going to use to write up a piece, and in either case, interviewing is something that takes practice to get what you want out of the meeting.

Here are my thoughts on how to approach and conduct an interview with a subject. Note that these are born out of minimal experience interviewing a subject as part of my writing career so pitch in with your criticism and suggestions.

What is the Purpose of the Interview?

Establish what the objective of the interview is to be. Are you interviewing the subject because you are writing about them or will be featuring them in your commission? Are you looking to use the subject’s knowledge and experience to support or counter the position you are taking with your commission?

Think before you start as all else follows.

Research the Subject and Topic Area Beforehand

You may be looking to elicit information from your subject and build up your own knowledge on the topic but that does not preclude you from equipping yourself with some knowledge in anticipation. Imagine you were interviewing Bill Gates or Richard Branson and your first question was “So, what is the name of your company?”; I doubt the interview would last 30 more seconds.

If you want your subject to open up with you, show you have some knowledge of both them and the topic which in turn will help them engage with you. You also will be able to identify information that is important if you have some knowledge to start with otherwise you may overlook something important.

Prepare a List of Questions Beforehand

One interview I conducted had to have prepared questions submitted in advance to the subject. Even so, you should already cover off the questions you are looking to have answers to rather than conducting an interview ad hoc – it’s easy to forget things and preparing questions beforehand will help you structure the interview and tactfully, keep control of it.

Mix Open with Closed Questions

If you are simply asking closed questions, e.g. “Are you a woman?” to which the answer can only be yes or no, you will have a very stilted interview, very formal, and you will miss out on a mine of information that the subject has but which you will not have opened up. Closed questions need to be used when you are looking to nail a factual matter down as open questions will provide fuzzy answers.

Asking open questions, e.g. “How often do you review your work and why?”, to which the subject cannot answer yes or no and must provide a discursive answer, will help you to get the subject responding to you with answers based upon their experiences, opinions and actual practice.

A good interview will mix the two sets of questions which will help the interview proceed and also produce information and facts that you need.

You Have Two Ears and One Mouth – Use them in that Ratio

The subject is not giving you their time so you can dominate the conversation – you actually want them to do most of the talking. Your job as the interviewer is to come away with the information you are looking for, and hopefully important information that you did not expect to find.

Let your subject do most of the talking and listen. This does not mean it is a one way conversation as your job is to recognise when a question needs to be asked or a the subject is to be prompted. Ask your subject to expand on statements they have made and feedback responses they have already made to reinforce the points they make and demonstrate you are actually listening and interested, e.g. “You mentioned your time in Paris in the nineties; tell me more about your experiences their and what challenges you faced.”

Leave the Door Open at the End

You can never be certain that you have got everything you need from an interview. You may forget something or research down the line may mean you need to go back to your subject and ask for clarification or more information.

Before you quit the interview, take the time to thank your subject and ask them if they are happy for you to come to them with more questions at a later date. It doesn’t have to be face-to-face, email or telephone can suffice but make sure you ask them and get them to say “yes”; by this time unless you have really upset them, they are unlikely to say “no”.