Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Honing Your Interview Skills to Become a Better Writer

I like to play games with clients. I don’t mean anything nasty by this! Quite the opposite: I play games because it helps make the learning more fun.

Recently, I had a client — a reporter — who was having a hard time writing stories. I suspected the problem wasn’t so much his writing as his interviewing skills. He didn’t know how to interview effectively enough, I guessed. But I don’t like to form conclusions without doing any research. So, to test the theory, I asked him to interview me.

Badda boom. His interview exposed the problem as neatly as if I’d dissected his brain and laid it out on a table before me!

Here’s what happened. I asked him if he knew I was the mother of triplets, and he didn’t, so I suggested he interview me about the topic. My exact instructions? “Imagine you’ve been asked to interview me so you can write a 500-750 word story on what it’s like to be the parent of triplets.”

The interview started well enough. He asked me the age and sex of the children (24; two girls and one boy.) He asked me if multiples run in my family (Yes. I have twin cousins and a set of triplets much further back.) Then he asked me if my kids had gone to the same school. I told him we homeschooled our kids until they were in grade 10. He asked why and I confessed that our son is both gifted and learning disabled. And here’s where things started to go off the rails.

The reporter, you see, had been trained as a teacher and had a particular interest in the topic of gifted/learning disabled kids. All of a sudden, he started asking lots of questions about my son’s giftedness (music/technology) and learning disabilities (reading/math/focus). I let this line of questioning continue for about five minutes before asking, “Do you think you have enough material to write the story now?” He said he thought so, but when I pointed out that he’d veered completely off topic, he had to agree.

In truth, he had nowhere near enough interesting material on the topic he’d been assigned.

He continued with his questions, now focusing on the topic of triplets. Most of the questions were reasonable but almost all of them were questions of fact: “how do you feed three babies at once?” and “how old were they when they first slept through the night?”

Never once did he ask for my opinions or feelings about anything. Nor did he ask for anecdotes! And, trust me, I have some great ones… If he had actually written the story, I’m sure it would have been very similar to most of his other articles — filled with dull quotes, instead of lively, action-packed ones. Yet I had plenty of interesting quotes inside me! He just didn’t dig deep enough to find them.

If your writing requires you to interview others, be sure to ask questions seeking opinions and feelings. How did that make you feel? What makes you say that? Why do you think that?

As well, make certain you give your subject lots of feedback. Wow! That must have been interesting/frightening/rewarding/frustrating/____ (fill in your favorite adjective here.) This kind of feedback is invaluable because if you are wrong, the subject will correct you and if you are right, he or she will likely elaborate. You can’t go wrong with this approach.

Finally, ask questions that force the subject to give you a real-life example or two. For example, if the reporter had asked me about whether I’d ever had second thoughts about having triplets I might have recalled a time when they were two years old and I decided to walk them to the park. The visit went well but they became tired and refused to walk home. I wound up “ferrying” back, one at a time, carrying them a few yards each so I could keep an eye on the ones left behind. It took me about an hour to walk five blocks.

It’s a great story. Too bad the reporter didn’t ask about it! When you do your interviews, don’t view it as a fact-collecting expedition. Remember that roughly 50% of the material you get should be stories, metaphors and opinions.

If it’s not, you’re not asking the right questions.

Daphne Gray-Grant

Daphne Gray-Grant

A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8 1⁄2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. It's brief. It's smart. And it's free.
Daphne Gray-Grant
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