Secrets of a Master:
10 Insider Secrets of Successful Interviewing,

In issue #16 of The Golden Thread, we asked our master copywriters Bob Bly and John Forde how they approach experts for an interview – and they gave us some great advice. Now, here's Jen Stevens' input …

Secret #1: Ask questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer.

Though a “yes” or “no” from an interview subject can confirm or discount a statement you've made, such a perfunctory answer won't get you the kind of meaty, quotable information you need.

Secret #2: Decide what it is you really need from your interviewee.

Ask yourself: “What do I want this guy to give me?” Then write down your answer. It may be more than one thing, and that's fine. But you must have this “need-to-know” list in front of you before preparing your questions, or you'll find yourself asking everything under the sun and wasting not only your own time but also that of your interviewee. Once you've got it straight in your mind why it is you need to talk to a particular person, you can prepare your questions accordingly. You'll find yourself more focused and your interview more effective.

Secret # 3: Having a list of questions in hand is an invaluable safety net.

Before an interview, I always sit down and scribble a list of the questions I need to ask. It helps me focus my thoughts and gives me a boost in confidence. Even if I have my questions memorized, at least I know I can always look down at my list if I'm at a loss for words.

Once I'm actually conducting the interview, I'm fine. It's the pre-interview jitters I've never quite overcome (even after a decade of experience). So don't be deterred if your knees are knocking the first time you call someone or walk into an office. It's normal. And practice does alleviate it – if not eliminate it entirely.

Secret # 4: Don't hesitate to ask for interviews.

People like to talk about themselves and their own experiences, and they are flattered that you're interested in their opinions. If you want to interview a "bigwig" like a CEO of a company, you'll most likely have to go through his or her secretary, media-relations office, or public relations firm. Again, don't be deterred – you simply need to go through the proper channels.

The higher up the ladder your interviewee, the greater credibility his or her words and opinions will carry. So aim high. That doesn't mean you can't start out by interviewing somebody lower on the corporate ladder to get background information and learn the bulk of what you need to know. But then, armed with that information, ask to speak next with the appropriate VP or with the CEO. Your questions will be more targeted, and your interview will be shorter.

Secret # 5: Set up your interviews in advance.

You can usually set up a formal interview over the phone or via e-mail. At that time, it's smart to give folks an idea of what you're interested in learning and how long your interview will likely be.

I've found it makes sense to schedule at least half an hour. Even if you have only four or five questions, if your subject gets to talking (and you hope he or she will), you'll need at least that much time.

Once you've scheduled a timeslot, stick to it. People have busy schedules, and as much as they may be enjoying the conversation with you, they likely have other things to do. So watch your clock. At half an hour, say "Thank you, I don't want to take up any more of your time." Or, if you have many more questions you haven't yet gotten to, say, "We've already been talking for half an hour, and I still have a few more questions I'd like to ask you. I don't want to eat up your time. I know you're busy. Do you have 15 more minutes now – or can we arrange a time when I might call you back?"

If you've run through your half hour and still haven't finished with your list of questions, you can either jump ahead to the most important question you have and make sure you at least get that one answered. Or, you might suggest finishing up by phone in the next day or so.

Obviously, it's best to schedule more time than half an hour if you know you'll need it. And that sense for how long things take will come with practice. So when you start out as a rookie interviewer, pay close attention to how long the interviews take, and you'll be better able to plan in the future.

Secret # 6: Arm yourself with the right equipment.

If you're interviewing somebody face-to-face, be sure to bring along a notebook and two pens. (You never know when one will die.) I use a steno notebook with a hard cardboard cover so I can keep it on my lap as I scribble (wherever my interview may be) and still write legibly.

You may want to buy one of those tiny tape recorders to bring with you to interviews. That way, you'll be sure to have an accurate record of quotes. But make sure you take detailed notes as well. Those little machines malfunction and get lost. What's more, it takes forever to transcribe an interview from tape. Even scanning it – forward and rewind, forward and rewind – to find a quote is both extremely time consuming and just a plain pain in the neck.

If you do use a tape recorder, start by asking your interviewee if it's okay for you to record your conversation. (You're required by law in many states to disclose this fact.) Usually, people don't have a problem with the interview being taped. However, I think people are more cautious about what they say when their every word is being recorded right there in front of them. I can't prove that, but I think people speak more freely when it's just me and my little pad in the room.

During phone interviews, I'll sometimes type notes as my interviewee talks. If you type quickly, this works just fine. But make sure you tell the person you're speaking with that you're taking notes on your computer. You wouldn't think all those clicks could carry through the handset … but they do. And you don't want the person you're interviewing to think that you're busy doing something else while he or she is talking.

One last note about equipment: If you find you're doing a lot of phone interviews, I suggest you go out and get a telephone headset. They cost only a few dollars. Devices that tape phone conversations are also affordable these days. So, if you want to be sure you're not missing anything, go ahead and invest in one. But, again, make absolutely sure you ask your interviewee at the beginning of the conversation if it's okay to tape it.

Secret # 7: Approach your interview like a conversation.

Pay attention to the person you're speaking with and react to his or her statements as you would in a normal conversation. You can comment here or there, nod your head, indicate you understand. One caution on this subject: Don't get so "friendly" that you find you're telling as many stories as your interviewee. After all, you're there to hear what he or she has to say.

Ask follow-up questions. Don't simply jot down the answers you're given and feel that that's all you're going to get on a given subject. Go ahead and rephrase your question if you didn't get the full answer you were looking for.

If you don't understand an answer you're given, ask your interviewee to explain it further. If you're going to write about a subject so that your readers will understand it, you'll need to understand it first yourself.

Particularly if you're writing about a technical subject, it's perfectly fine to have your interviewee clarify an issue. You can say, "My audience is lay people. Can you explain that in terms they'd understand?" Or, if you have in mind a simple way to explain something, you can try it out on your interviewee. Say, "In other words, it's like …" And see if he or she agrees that makes sense.

Remain flexible during an interview. The person you're talking with may take a subject and run with it, and you may find yourself pursuing an interesting angle you hadn't thought of or even known about when you made up your list of questions. But, if you find your interviewee wandering so far off the subject you need to cover that you're not gathering anything you can use, gently redirect the conversation.

Secret # 8: Establish, immediately, what's "on the record" and what's "off the record."

If you're interviewing a corporate executive, for example, it's possible that he might tell you things "as background" or to give you "a heads up" as to what's coming down the pike, but ask that you not print that information. This means it's "off the record."

If you're conducting an interview and suspect you might learn some things your interviewee won't want printed, start the interview by saying, "I'll assume everything we talk about is 'on the record' unless you tell me otherwise." That way, you don't risk gathering a lot of great information only to have your interviewee tell you as you walk out of the room, "Oh, by the way, all that I said about XX…that's off the record."

Secret # 9: Ask if you may follow up should you think of anything else.

It's not unusual, especially when you're just starting out, to find that when you sit down to write, you're missing some information. Don't worry. Just remember to ask, before the end of the interview, if it's okay to call back should you think of any additional questions. Most interviewees have no problem with this. And don't feel silly if you. Just be sure you've got all your questions in order. It would likely be an imposition to call back more than once.

Secret # 10: Write a thank-you note to your interviewee.

You don't have to write pages and pages, but always write at least a few lines to thank an interviewee for speaking with you. In doing so, you'll create a contact you can come back to and gain a reputation as being professional, responsible, and thoughtful.

[Jen Stevens, a professional travel writer, copywriter, and editor of AWAI's "The Ultimate Travel Writer's Course, is teaming up with 9 of the most successful editors, writers and publishers in the travel writing industry this April for the first-ever AWAI/IL International Travel Writing Course in Paris, France.

You'll learn even more great secrets to launch your travel writing career and even walk away with a publishable Paris travel article.

For details about how you can be part of this exciting program, call Louis at 561/278-5557.]

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Published: February 25, 2002

1 Response to “Secrets of a Master: 10 Insider Secrets of Successful Interviewing, by Jen Stevens”

  1. I find the material very complete. It is very stimulating from my learning approach.

    Sara Millard DieffembachApril 11, 2011 at 4:09 pm


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