As nonprofits continue to realize the value of storytelling in their print and digital communications,
strong interview skills are critical for capturing constituent stories. Interviewing really is an art, as I learned when I first started writing professionally more than a dozen years ago.
These eight guidelines can help you conduct better interviews and accurately capture the most compelling stories.
1. Prepare. Try to get a sense of the person you’re talking to, when possible—look at a photo, a website, historical information, whatever your organization or Google has available. (But don’t make assumptions based on those things.) Spend some time putting yourself in that person’s shoes and considering what their perspective might be. (Might be.)
2. Compile a list of questions. Have an idea of what you hope to cover—you don’t want to waste people’s time with a lack of focus. As you talk (i.e. listen), skip questions that seem less relevant and instead raise questions you hadn’t thought of previously. Skilled interviewers ask the “right” questions and also can tell instinctively when to delve further or move on.
3. Record. You’ll be surprised what you can miss if you’re trying to take notes by hand, either with a pen or keyboard. Make sure you ask permission first, though.
4. Pay closer attention than you think you need to. It’s surprisingly hard to listen, process what you’re hearing and think of the next question to ask quickly. I recently heard a recorded interview where the interviewer summarized what the interviewee said after each question—but got it wrong almost every time. She clearly wasn’t hearing the nuances of what her source was relating. This is also why you record; so you can pay less attention to your notes and more attention to the person talking.
5. Clarify rather than draw conclusions or assume. Remember that you’re trying to gather someone else’s story. In order to clarify what they’re saying, ask “Am I understanding correctly that…?” or “It sounds like…, is that true?” rather than “So, you were X and did Y.” And never judge.
6. Be quiet. Don’t think of interviews as conversations, during which most of us feel pressure to make small talk to fill silences. It’s fine to “Mmm-hmm” or say that you understand (if you do), or to ask for more detail or clarification or just…be silent. Don’t hijack the interview by talking too much.
7. Ask. Always ask if there’s anything else the person wants to share or feels is important for you to know. You might get some of your best information this way. I used to worry that, if given the chance, people would talk my ear off about unrelated things. Sure, it’s happened. When it does, I politely interrupt and say I need to wrap up. But it’s rare; most people are respectful of others’ time and busy themselves.
8. Stay in touch. Make sure you have contact information so you can gather more details and confirm accuracy as you incorporate interviewee stories into your content. Always thank people for sharing, and follow up with samples or links to the related material your org produces.