Interviewing is a performance art just like a musician taking to the stage, or an athlete performing on the field.
It requires preparation, genuine curiosity, and above all, a relaxed and focused mindset.
In nonprofit communications, we interview colleagues and other professionals to uncover stories for case studies or internal communications - or to gather useful information for our organization.
This primer will help you to prepare and execute quality, journalistic interviews to bring out interesting and personal stories that will support your nonprofit’s work.
Your Interview Begins with Preparation
The more research you do to prepare for your interview, the more successful you’ll be.
Learn about your interviewee’s job, their organization, sector (including any jargon they may use), politics, and accomplishments. Use every channel available to you, including organization websites, LinkedIn profiles, social media channels, news articles - you name it.
Now, there’s no need to research as if you’re preparing for a documentary - that would be overkill. Instead, decide how important the interview is and how much time you can spare, and learn as much as you can through that frame.
Your research will help you establish authority with your interviewee. Having background knowledge means your interviewee won’t have to clarify terms for you, putting you on the same page and preventing any disruption to your conversation.
Your research will also inform the questions you’ll ask. For example, let’s compare two similar questions; one is surface-level, and the other is informed by research.
- Which university did you study at?
- What was it like studying at McGill University during the October Crisis?
Simply knowing that your interviewee studied at McGill during 1970 can drastically change the impact of a question. In our example, the second question moves past the details (that were covered in your research!), and brings out your interviewee’s perspective.
Asking informed questions like this communicates respect for your interviewee’s time by demonstrating the work you put in to make the most out of your interview. You impress them and show respect by coming prepared.
This means that the quality of your interview depends on the relationship, or rapport, you develop with your interviewee. As radio journalist Jim Beaman puts it, it depends on your professionalism: Are you knowledgeable on the subject and topic being discussed? Are you courteous? Do you allow your subject to be comfortable?
An interviewer must lead, and set the mood. A relaxed, comfortable, and low-pressure environment is best; it provides a ‘safe space’ that allows subjects to trust you and open up.
And this all starts with good preparation.
Crafting the Direction of your Interview: Be Flexible to Change!
It’s important to have a sense of where you want your interview to go. What information are you looking for? What topics will your interview explore? How do you envision the conversation flowing?
A list of questions will help guide you. Compose a list of main questions that cover the topics you want to discuss - they’re essentially there to make sure you don’t miss anything during the interview!
Also list potential follow-up questions underneath these main questions. This will get you thinking about how your subject may respond, and where you’d like the conversation to go after a main question is asked.
It can also help you maintain the flow of the conversation when the actual interview occurs; if your interviewee answers a question in a way you anticipated, you’ll have a quality follow-up right at your fingertips!
While preparing questions ahead of time is crucial, it’s equally important not to be married to your line of questioning. Your interviews will often take unexpected directions - relish in it! That’s where the real story emerges, because you touch on ideas and topics you couldn’t find online: the interviewee’s perspective, or their personal life.
Don’t be afraid to tackle topics and take directions you didn’t anticipate. Ask questions you think of on the spot, ask clarifying questions, and make neutral statements to support the conversation when appropriate.
Sometimes, the story won’t be what you initially thought, and that’s ok.
Phrasing your Questions
Phrasing questions comes down to your own style. However, there are a few things to avoid.
Never ask a ‘closed question’ that could be answered with ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Instead, use ‘open questions’ so your interviewee can respond in sentences.
- DON’T - Can social enterprises be effective?
- DO - How effective can social enterprises be?
Sometimes, we’ll have two related questions in mind and we’ll try to ask them at once. This is called a ‘double-barrelled question’ and can overwhelm the interviewee, causing them to answer only one of two questions, or answer them both in less depth as they might have if asked one at a time. Instead, ask the more pertinent question first, and save the other as a follow-up.
- DON’T - When did you become a social worker and what lead you to make that decision?
- DO - When did you become a social worker? Then, after you learn when this change occurred, you can follow up with, And what lead you to make that decision?
Questions should be phrased in the same way that we write - clear and concise. Your question should get straight to the point and be easily understood.
- DON’T - What allows corporations to be able to circumvent our environmental protection laws?
- DO - How do corporations circumvent environmental laws?
I mentioned before that a relaxed, comfortable and low-pressure environment fosters the best interviews. You can’t achieve that environment if you’re late.
Always aim to be early. It looks professional, communicates respect for the interviewee’s time, and most importantly, takes away unnecessary stress you feel when you’re running late. It also provides a cushion in case something comes up, like a delay on public transit.
You want to enter your interview as calm and relaxed as possible, and being punctual sets you up for success.
Transitioning into the Interview
Unless you’ve been formally interviewed yourself, you may not realize that your interviewee is often just as nervous as you are. You are both on similar ground, so there’s no need to feel any pressure. Just be natural and relaxed, and you’ll find yourself sharing that energy with your interviewee - they will feel as comfortable speaking with you as you are with them!
Greet your interviewee like you would a new colleague (with genuine enthusiasm), and start an informal conversation about their work or day - whatever feels right. Do your best to just hold that conversation and not rush towards the actual interview. Ideally, your casual conversation will naturally flow into one of your interview topics without anyone noticing! This helps your interview feel natural.
That being said, sometimes your conversation will drag on and you’ll be forced to start your interview using a prompt, like “Shall we dive into it?”.
The Performance Side of Interviewing
Some trainee journalists worry about the sound of their own voice, or whether they look as though they know what they are doing, or whether their questions sound stupid, or whether they are asking the right questions; they worry about what the interviewee will think of them, and how they will cope when things go wrong.
- Jim Beaman
Interviewing is a performance. You’ve put in a lot of thought and preparation, but when you finally sit down with your interviewee, the thinking stops. You need to focus on letting natural conversation to flow, which requires you to be yourself: relaxed, in the moment, and engaged.
This means quieting your inner voices: don’t worry about which questions will come next, or whether there will be an awkward moment. You will find yourself at a loss on how to proceed sometimes, and there’s no shame in taking a moment to breathe, look at your notes, and continue.
Focus on actively listening and simply trying to understand your interviewee. It may feel nerve-wracking at first, but if you relax and engage in the conversation - even one as formal as an interview - the questions and conversation will flow.
Body language is important too! Keep a relaxed posture and don’t be afraid of eye contact (but don’t stare your interviewee down either!). You’re not trying to be ‘on’ or force any sort of demeanor, but you’re still engaging your interviewee.
The more natural and conversational your interview is, the more successful you’ll be.
Use Silence to your Advantage
People have a tendency to fill silence - especially in a formal setting like an interview. As the interviewer, you may subconsciously ask a question to dispel the awkwardness when no one’s speaking.
You have to show restraint here. Let the silence linger, and you will be amazed at how your interviewee will elaborate on their answers and reveal things they may not have said otherwise.
Obviously, don’t let the silence linger so long that your interviewee becomes uncomfortable and wonders “what’s going on?”. However, do allow a few seconds of silence here and there to effortlessly keep the conversation flowing.
Taking Notes vs Recording Audio
The luxury of modern technology lets us record clear sound with our cell phones. When technology works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, it’s a hinderance.
That’s why taking notes is so important. No matter the precautions you take, there will be instances where your audio becomes unusable. Here are a few examples (each one has happened to me!):
- Your recorder runs out of battery (or cold weather shrinks your battery capacity)
- Your didn’t (properly) hit record
- Your audio file becomes corrupted or unusable
- Your audio settings were such that the sound is distorted, and certain phrases are unclear
- You accidentally delete or misplace your file
The best way to mitigate this risk is to have two recorders going, so that if something happens with one of them, you have a backup.
However, the only sure-fire way of not losing your story, is not to depend on technology; take hand-written notes (or type your notes if you’re conducting your interview via phone or online). You should be able to write your story with just your notes, so that if your audio is unusable, you still have something to show for it.
This is good practice anyways; when you take notes during your interview, it helps you digest what your interviewee is saying, which leads to better listening.
There’s an app for that!
Here are a few apps that you can use to record your interviews.
- In-person - Voice Recorder (Android) and Voice Record Pro (iPhone)
- Phone - Call Recorder for Android and iPhone
- Skype - Free Video Call Recorder for Skype (Windows) and Call Recorder for Skype (Mac)
Ending the Interview
Even if you’re confident your interview covered all the bases, your interviewee may not feel that way. There’s often something else they want to say, but weren’t given the opportunity to address.
That’s why you always end your interview by asking, “Is there anything you’d like to add that was missed?”. This question gives them the floor to speak their mind, which can lead to unexpected and valuable conversation.
Healthy Post-Interview Habits
The human memory begins to fade within hours of an encounter. It’s amazing how you can understand your notes while walking out of your interview, and later on find yourself solving riddles.
That’s why it’s good practice to take time immediately after an interview to go over your notes and flesh them out with more detail; if someone else read them, they should understand how the conversation went. This also helps burn the information into your memory, so you have a good sense of what you're working with when you do begin to write.
Listen Back to the Audio
While it shouldn’t be depended on, having audio of your interview is invaluable feedback. Interviewing is an art and skill and there’s no real substitute to experience.
Listening back let’s you get a real sense of the mood of the interview, and helps you identify what to work on and do differently next time.
A Thank You Goes a Long Way
Even if your interviewee is a colleague and it’s their job to partake, you should make a point of thanking them for their time. It’s always an act of trust to engage in an interview, and acknowledging that with a genuine thank you goes a long way to maintaining your working relationships.
Thank you for reading! I hope this primer helps you get more out of your interviews in the future. Good luck telling rich stories!