Perfecting the Interview - Asking the Right Questions

Thursday, July 08, 2010
The interview ranks as one of the top responsibilities of freelance writers. Whether you interview a local athlete who set a new record or a best-selling author, preparing for the interview and asking the right questions will lead to a successful story.

I seldom cold call and conduct the interview. I learned early in my writing career that interview subjects seldom like to be blindsided. Set up a time for an in-person, telephone or e-mail interview and make sure you're on time. Just before I get to the heart of the interview, I like to double check that it's a good time to talk. As writers, we realize that interruptions can derail plans. Showing courtesy to your interview subject not only exhibits professionalism, but it lets the interviewee know you have their schedule in mind, too.

Now, let's jump into the interview. If you've done your research, you've hopefully come up with a list of questions. But don't overlook the obvious. Often, these q-and-a's will provide a candid view into the subject.
  1. Spell It Correctly. Even the simplest names can have spelling variations. Accuracy counts, so ask for a correct spelling of the person's name.
  2. Why Did You . . . ? Why questions require synthesis - seeing relationships and drawing conclusions from an experience. Some of the best responses come from this type of question.
  3. How Did You . . . ? The "how" question helps define a process and allows for clarification.
  4. Did You Experience Conflict? Some interview subjects shy away from conflict, but a good interviewer will bring it up and ask for a reaction. This question helps balance the final product.
  5. Are There Benefits? Look for the silver lining. How did the subject grow from the experience? How can this person's story help others?
  6. Would You Change Anything? This question lets the subject reflect on her story or experience. From my experience, even if they say "no," I keep digging. Nothing is ever perfect. :)
  7. What's the Secret To Your Success? It's proven: people like hearing their name and they like talking about their experiences. Many times, this question leads new information about the subject and puts a new perspective on the story.

Once I've gone through my list, I like to ask if the interviewee can think of additional information I may need for the piece. Sometimes they'll direct me to other sources, which may mean a new story idea.

When I'm interviewing, I like to take notes about the subject's demeanor: the look in her eye, tone of voice, fidgety behavior. Those personal details add a personable touch to a story.

Finally, I ask if it will be OK to call again or send an e-mail if I have follow-up questions. Occasionally, an interviewee has scheduled a time with me for the day following the interview. Again, writers need to remember that this person has a schedule too, and it's courteous and professional to ask.

Once the interview has concluded, I like to send a thank you note or postcard to the interviewee. I usually receive a thank-you-for-the-handwritten-note note in return. It's a networking bonus!

Perfecting your interview style will enhance your writing and set your apart from others. It should be the sharpest tool in a freelancer's toolbox.

by LuAnn Schindler. Learn more about LuAnn and her writing endeavors at or follow her on Facebook or Twitter - @luannschindler.


Marcia Peterson said...

Super tips, as usual. Thanks LuAnn!

Mary Lynn Archibald said...

Great tips, especially for those of us who do interviews for newspapers, etc.



LuAnn Schindler said...


I use those questions for every interview when I write for the newspaper. I'm always amazed at how much extra info I get that works into a sidebar or even another story.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Great advice! Thanks for sharing it.

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