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The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #100, which addresses how to become a better interviewer. The post first ran on July 19/19.
Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant and my topic today is how to become a better interviewer.
I have a question from Donna Henderson — a writer based in Los Angeles. Here’s what she’s asked via email:
“I’m a freelance writer who has to do a lot of employee interviews. I sometimes get the feeling that I would be a lot better writer if I could improve my interviewing skills. Do you agree with me and, if so, what can you suggest?”
Thanks for your question, Donna. You’re absolutely right. Being a better interviewer will help make you a better writer, if only because it will give you better material to work with.
BUT, interviewing can be a hard skill to learn. One of the best ways to improve is to get more practice. You don’t need to get this practice in REAL situations, either. You can do it at home, with family members, or at work or school with friends and colleagues.I’ve noticed many writers tend to make two classic mistakes when they interview others:
- They treat interviews as a cross-examination rather than a conversation.
- They ask only factual questions:What? Where? When? How? And they focus on data such as years, amount and volume. In fact, the very best quotes almost always come from questions about feelings and opinions.
Many years ago, I was hired to help improve the interviewing skills of a reporter from a weekly newspaper. To get a sense of how he operated, I asked him to interview me about being the mother of triplets.
Never once did he ask for my opinions or feelings about anything. Nor did he ask for anecdotes! 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 for stories and/or 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.
As well, make certain you give your subject lots of feedback during your interview. Comments like: Wow! That must have been interesting/frightening/rewarding/frustrating. 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 probably elaborate. You can’t go wrong with this approach.
But if even this technique seems too challenging, be sure to use the super-easy trick of repetition. Here’s how it works: Your subject says something and you repeat it (word for word is okay) and add a question mark to your voice.
Subject: “The sales and marketing team had never before faced such a massive challenge.”
You: “The sales and marketing team had never before faced such a massive challenge?” (Remember to upspeak, which means raising your voice at the end of the line.)
But now let me talk about something that I’m guessing you might not have considered before. The next most important skill related to interviewing is learning HOW to use quotes in your stories.
I always say that the quotes should be so sensational, they should look like jewels displayed on black velvet.
So, when you have your crappy first draft, (see link below) highlight all the quotes you’ve used in bright yellow. You can do this using a paper printout or digitally, with the electronic highlight tool — whichever you prefer.)
Then, make each quote justify itself:
- Is it interesting?
- Is it in the spoken — as opposed to the written — word? (Read it aloud to double-check.)
- Is its “voice” — or the way it sounds — distinctive from your own?
If your answer to any of these questions is no, then paraphrase.
The easiest way to paraphrase is simply to remove the quote marks. For example, take this line from an article I found on the internet: “I think Barbra Streisand is just amazing,” Lea Michele says.
Interesting sentiment but a terribly boring quote. It would be so much better paraphrased as: Lea Michele says she finds Barbra Streisand to be an amazing performer.
Or, go one step further and change one or two of the words: Lea Michele says she finds Barbra Streisand to be a remarkable performer.
Do you see how much better that sounds?
Here’s another important point. Never feel obliged to use quotes from people you’ve interviewed. I know, it’s tempting to worry about having wasted their time. Don’t. It’s part of their job to speak to you. Including great swathes of boring quotes will not allow you to accomplish your job of attracting readers.
Here is a list of material that is likely better paraphrased/summarized than simply quoted directly:
- Historical background or any issues involving timing
- Reasons for something
- Stories, anecdotes and examples
- Anything involving numbers, especially dates and money.
Reserve your quotes for the best of the very best and your stories will improve dramatically.
Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the American actor William Shatner: “When I’m interviewing somebody, I don’t work from prepared questions.”
Donna, that last comment from Shatner is not a throwaway line. It’s important. Take a list of questions into an interview with you but don’t use it until a deep lull OR until the very end, as a kind of a checklist. The idea behind all good interviews is that they feel like conversations: relaxed, interesting and, with a natural give and take. If you can do that, you’ll have dramatically improved your interviewing.