Become an Expert Interviewer — Fast

At some point in your Web career — whether as blogger, podcaster or vodcaster — it’s likely you’ll find yourself in the position of interviewing others. If you’re a professional journalist, doing an interview is fairly straightforward. But what if you’re no expert? This cheatsheet, culled from a talk given by podcasting coach Heidi Miller during the Podcast and New Media Expo, can help you prepare.

1. As part of your preparation, search out previous interviews the guest has done. Look for topics “the guest really likes to talk about,” advises Miller, and the topics that “fall flat.” The goal: To find a balance between what your audience wants to hear and also what the guest wants to talk about.

2. Create a list of 10 questions to ask the guest. Next, ask a fan of the guest to put together 10 questions. “Then combine them to come up with a list of 10 burning questions,” she says. The goal: To ask the questions your listeners or readers would want to ask.

3. Ask open-ended questions. Don’t pose questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. As Miller explains, “You’re looking for stories and surprises.” The goal: To get your guest to tell a story.

Potential lead-ins include: “Why did you decide to…” “What was the biggest reason you…” “When did you realize that…” “Where were you when…” “What experience did you draw on for…” “Tell me about…”

4. Let your research show in the way you pose your questions. As an example, Miller cited an interview Fresh Air’s Terry Gross did with Johnny Cash in 1997, in which she said, “When you got to Memphis, Elvis Presley had already recorded, ‘That’s All Right.’ Sam Phillips had produced him for his records, Sun Records. You called Sam Phillips and asked him for an audition. Did it take a lot of nerve to make that phone call?” The goal: To absorb the facts of your subject’s background and find ways to drill down to make the topics come alive.

5. If your guest wants to see the list of questions beforehand, politely decline. Miller suggests in such cases sending general topic areas. (I’ve found this approach to satisfy even the most intractable of PR people.) The goal: To avoid having the interview sound like it’s being read from a script.

6. The day before the interview, send an email reminder with four key pieces of information: a) Confirm the scope of the interview; b) Confirm the date and time, including the time zone; c) Clarify the procedure — you’re going to call on Skype; you’re going to call their land line; d) Confirm that they will be on a land line — no cell phone or cordless phone. (This latter point is less important for non-broadcast interviews.) The goal: To avoid simple and obvious glitches.

7. Start the interview with softball questions. Ask their name, title, courtesy questions about how the flight was, or what their role in the company is. The goal: To get your guest warmed up.

8. Don’t stick to the list of questions you’ve created. Here, advises Miller, “Shut up and listen.” Has somebody just mentioned that they have a favorite tool they like to use in a given instance? Respond, “Really? Tell me more!” The goal: To get examples and anecdotes that will engage listeners and readers.

9. Don’t assume you’re the only one in the world who doesn’t understand something your guest is talking about. If your interview subject is using “corporate-speak,” said Miller, “ask again. ‘Explain it to me like I’m five, or explain it to me like I’m your mother'” The goal: To have the guest explain the concept until you can understand it. Your readers will appreciate the effort.

You can download an outline of Miller’s entire presentation here.

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