As a writer, when you prepare to do an interview for an alumni magazine feature story or a web profile, it’s important to write a list of questions you want to ask your subject. However, what you do with that list can make the difference between a good interview and a bad one.
Young writers have a tendency to repeatedly refer to their list of questions during an interview because they want to make sure they ask all the questions they’ve prepared. When this happens, the list becomes a crutch and hinders a good interview.
When you refer to your question list during an interview, you’re not in the moment. When I conduct an in-person interview in the subject’s home or office, I observe the surroundings. I look at framed photos on the wall, objects on their desk, or the books on a shelf. The first question I ask is often about one of these objects, not a question from my list.
People tend to surround themselves with objects that help to tell their story. Asking about these objects not only breaks the ice and helps put your subject at ease, but also opens the door for interesting anecdotes that help paint a portrait of their life. Often, these simple observations and the stories they launch can become central to a profile.
In addition, referring to your list of questions during an interview can distract you from truly listening to the answer to your previous question. Listening intently to the answer will lead to follow-up questions, most of which are not on the list you prepared. These follow-up questions help guide the interview, often in a direction you may not have anticipated. This is because the questions you prepared are built on preconceived notions about your subject and the story as you see it.
What should you do with your list of questions? Once you write the list, read it over a few times and tuck it in the back of your notebook. Don’t refer to the list until you think you are close to the end of the interview. At that point, when you refer to the list, you should have no more than a couple questions to ask. The questions you prepared are in your subconscious, and you will find that you ask them in a more natural way that fits with the flow of the interview, and not in the order that you wrote them down.
Once you practice this a few times, you should see a big difference in the quality of your interviews and the richness of your writing based on what you’ve observed in addition to the questions you asked. It will help you be a better storyteller.
Dan Hanson has been telling stories for colleges and universities for more than 25 years. He operates Dan Hanson: Storyteller, a higher education public relations consulting and freelance writing business based in Wallingford, Pa. He previously served as director of public relations at Widener University, Lock Haven University, Gwynedd Mercy University, and the Drexel University School of Education.