Sage Advice for Avoiding Interview Mishaps

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Mark Twain quipped, "Whenever you give an interviewer a fact give him another fact that will contradict it. Then he'll go away with a jumble he can't use at all."

Twain's humorous take on interview skills leaves freelancers wondering about the craft of conferencing. Do unwritten rules exist about securing an expert interview prior to sending a query? What if an interviewee demands to read - and edit - your piece prior to publication?

Check out these interview scenarios and learn how to avoid interview pitfalls.

The scenario: You devise a brilliant idea for an article and now, you're stuck. Is it best to find an expert first or submit the query and then look for a source?
The advice: In my experience, it depends on the story and the publication I'm pitching. But, I have found that if I approach an expert source and explain that the article is in the query stage, they're more than willing to give me enough information so the pitch stands out. Then, if I need additional information once the query gets the green light, I conduct an in depth interview.
The scenario: What's the best way to conduct the interview? Take notes? Type on my mini laptop? Audio record? Videotape?
The advice: It depends. If I'm on a phone interview and at my desk, I'll transcribe throughout the interview. A digital audio recorder works great, but double check battery levels before beginning. I'll never forget the one time I started an interview and the batteries died within 15 minutes. No backups. A three hour interview. With the increase in multimedia in journalism, a video of the interview can be useful, too. Find what works best for you in each situation, and always get permission to audio or video record.
The scenario: You're on a deadline and want to conduct a phone or live interview. Your source wants you to send an email list of questions and will respond "at her earliest convenience."
The advice: This is a tough one because it depends on the window before the clock strikes deadline and you turn in a late assignment. (Remember what happened in school when you handed in late homework?) If I have most of the legwork completed and just need to plug in quotes, I would go ahead and send the email. Try to accommodate your source. But, if I know time is of the essence, I'll explain my position to the interviewee and try to reach a compromise. If the source wants her name included in the article, she usually finds a way to make the process work in her best interest.
The scenario: You locate a wonderful source and she offers a wealth of insight and fantastic quotes. But, she has a new book/magazine article/TV appearance/radio interview coming out that's not on topic and she's hinting at a free publicity plug in your article.
The advice: Tricky situation. What if I need to contact the source again and I haven't mentioned her work? Or, should I risk my professional integrity by promoting a piece of work or appearance unrelated to the topic? Again, the variables dictate the choice, but I focus on work that relates to my subject. (And I haven't lost a source yet!)
The scenario: You write your article. Now, the expert wants to peruse it.
The advice: Consult your editor. Since I've been freelancing, only once source has requested to read an article prior to print. That publication had a policy against letting a source view the story before it hits the press. Another writer friend will send paragraphs including the source's quotes but not the entire piece.
The scenario: Interview complete. Article submitted and printed. Has my responsibility ended?
The advice: I always send a handwritten thank you note after an interview. It's just a personal touch that I like to add. It's PR that says I care about my career and it makes a great impression. Once an article is printed, I either send a link for online articles or I make a copy and put it in the mail. Like I previously mentioned, you never know when you may need to contact this source again.
Interviewing isn't an exact science. Each situation differs and a seasoned writer knows what methods work best.
And those facts will untangle the jumbled mess Twain humorously described.
by LuAnn Schindler. Find more of LuAnn's writing at
Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by mrgilles.


JenJen said...

The one time I let a source see an article before it went to press, they sat on it, essentially killing it.

Learning experience of a beginner. I will never do THAT again without getting my editors' advice! (The assignment in question was a very loose one.)

LuAnn Schindler said...

I recently agreed to let a source see an article ahead of time. Usually I'm against it, but this story was about a business and the sourced wanted to make sure I had the financial terms correct.

Freelancers learn as they go. :) Sometimes you get a feeling that it will be ok and other times, you just know when you shouldn't share.

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