The Art of the Interview

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Being a distance student working towards my English degree in the pursuit of a professional writing career has its disadvantages. I haven’t received any practical training when it comes to interviewing, and so by tiptoeing my way through this area in the form of e-mail interviews, finding myself needing to conduct telephonic interviews for the first time was quite a daunting prospect to consider. Let me just first say that where I have strengths in written communication, I am seriously lacking in verbal communication. I am a writer, I write to express myself in ways I just can’t verbally. If I enjoyed speaking I would have pursued some other such career. The role of the reclusive novelist probably describes me perfectly, and while fiction is my favoured medium, I really do enjoy writing articles and engaging with people – though I’d prefer when it comes to interviewing that it could be neatly wrapped up in written form… I send a perfectly constructed, grammatically correct e-mail list of questions, and my interviewee replies with their answers which I can quite comfortably quote verbatim.

Alas, for my first telephonic interviews, finding myself having to conduct four within two weeks I found myself diving head first into the deep end in pursuit of my goals. That is how I am, I very rarely turn down something because I am scared (bungee jumping excluded) as I know that the only way to grow as a person and develop the skills needed for success is to stretch yourself beyond what you believe you are capable of. And what better way to stretch myself than four consecutive telephonic interviews – not just one?

Here are some of the things I have learned since those first four:

1. E-mail in advance and request permission to do an interview, tell them who you are and who has commissioned you to write the article. Once they have agreed to an interview and have given you a time and a contact number, thank the person and give them a brief outline of what your article entails and what you will need from them in addition e.g. a photo, or a relevant anecdote – something that they may need to give some thought to beforehand.

2. Know your interviewee well. I have become the ultimate internet stalker. I have read every article I could find about each person I interviewed. I read previous interviews, watched YouTube videos of them speaking. By the time they answered their phones I knew their faces, their voices and their professional history. It was as if I was talking to someone I already knew.

3. Prepare more questions than you need – it is far better to have too much information than too little to write your article.

4. Dress professionally. Yes, you are on the other side of the phone and they can’t see you, but you are still doing your job. If you look professional, you will feel professional and it will come across in your interaction. Also, I personally feel more respectful to the person I am speaking to if I am dressed decently and sitting at a proper work surface while asking them about their careers, instead of in my pyjamas with messy hair and curled up on my bed or the couch.

5. The hardest part is note taking. When I had to do my first telephonic interview, I considered recording and was prepared to request permission and go ahead – this is an important point when recording – permission! I had set up my laptop with the voice recorder ready and put my cellphone on speaker so that I had my hands free to take backup notes and so that both voices would be recorded. However, when my interviewee answered the phone and asked me to ‘speak up’ I realised very quickly it wasn’t going to be an option in that instance and resorted to note taking – which I have stuck to as my method since.

6. Write out your whole conversation, from ‘Hello’ beforehand, in case you freeze and need a bit of a prompt. I wrote out my key points: 1) My greeting and introduction of myself; 2) thanking the person for their time; and 3) the nature of my article.

7. Have enough paper. I used an A4 sheet, divided in two with one question at the top of each section, leaving half a page to ‘scribble’

8. It does take practice to keep the conversation going while listening intently and trying to write while the person is speaking at normal speed. Key words are the way to go and listening with intent. You will be surprised at how much you remember but obviously the more you can scribble down the more accurately you can quote the person rather than just relay their information.

9. Thank your interviewee for their time.

10. Type up your questions and their answers immediately while the conversation is still fresh in your mind. Once you start writing your article and editing you will be relieved you have the fleshed out information to pick and choose from.

As from the above I am certainly no expert in this area and my suggestions are based purely on my experience which turned out to be successful.


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