Writing content for the web can take many forms, but a good number of those forms will probably involve an interview at some point or another. As a general rule, good interviews have three characteristics: One, they make you forget that someone other than the reader is asking the questions. Two, the reader leaves knowing something they didn’t before. Three, the reader doesn’t learn anything about the interviewer from the interview. The tips that follow should help you achieve these things.
Interview by Email
Personally, I think this is the best form of interview, for the simple reason that you don’t have to ask someone if you can record the conversation, but also because it’s far harder to misquote someone when you have their answers in their own writing.
Email also lets you relax and lay out your interview strategy and the actual questions. In theory, you can do that when speaking live to someone, too, but depending on who you’re interviewing and how confident a person you are in social settings, talking live may muddy the process a bit and leave you flummoxed to the point where your interview quality is significantly affected.
Regardless of how you choose to conduct your interview, because some will no doubt maintain that live is a much better alternative, perhaps because you have a greater chance of catching your subject off guard (a valid point), the advice that follows still applies.
Keep It Simple, But Focused
Ask open-ended questions. This should be self-evident, but if you ask someone a question they can answer with a simple “yes” or “no,” many often will. Instead of crafting an impressive, incisive 25-word question that’ll net you a three-word answer, try to keep your end of things relatively light and allow for plenty of expansion on your interviewee’s part.
But open-endedness can also be a double-edged sword. If you ask too vague a question, you might get a wealth of information, but it might not be useful, pertinent or interesting information. The key is to keep it on point. So, for example, instead of asking “What motivates you?” to someone like Ashton Kutcher when your publication focuses on social media, ask, “What motivated you to become so involved with Twitter to begin with?”
Care to Elaborate?
If your initial interview questions don’t elicit what you were looking for, or one answer in particular takes you in a new and potentially more interesting direction, don’t shy away from contacting your source again for further information. Think of the initial interview as a collaborative first draft process.
An exchange of two or three sets of questions and answers isn’t unusual. I always find it better to do this sort of thing over email, since you don’t have to worry about setting up times for face-to-face meetings or phone conversations for follow-up questions, and you can view the entire threaded conversation in your inbox when you later go to write the article. You could also use IM, but as with phone conversations, always make sure to get your interviewee’s permission before logging the conversation.
There are many ways to conduct a post-interview. The simplest is just to send a thank-you note, along with a publication date for the content that will result, and a promise to follow up with a link when it goes live. Depending on the purposes of the interview you’re conducting, more or less may be required.
If you’re just starting out with a source that you’d like to retain in the future, and who might be sensitive to how they are portrayed, you may want to forward an advance copy of the finished piece so that they can give you input before publication. Generally speaking, this isn’t advisable, though, since it puts too much control in the hands of the person being interviewed. If that person is your company’s CEO, and your piece if for the corporate newsletter, then by all means, forward it for his or her approval first.
Interviewing for the web resembles interviewing for print, but it doesn’t necessarily mirror it. It’s hard to give broad advice when the type of content you’re producing makes such big differences in how you go about the task, but hopefully the advice above gets you off to a good start.
If you have any good interviewing tips, share them below.