I developed six tips to help new writers conduct interviews. I've published two versions.
My career in sales helped me become a confident interviewer. When, after several years of writing for a daily newspaper, my editor strongly suggested I segue from short humor to regional features, I hesitated. I had never conducted an interview before–could I handle it? Then it dawned on me–I already possessed the skills needed for fearless interviews. I had acquired them during long hours working in retail sales. Sales training and experience had molded me into a darned good salesperson despite my less than aggressive nature. I decided to take the selling techniques I had learned and apply them to my interviews. If you are nervous about interviewing sources for your articles or fiction, the following six sales tips will help you proceed with confidence and end up with great quotes, realistic details, priceless insights, and a list of reliable sources.
1. Visualize success: Prior to an appointment, picture the most self-assured person you know conducting the upcoming interview. Then imagine that you are the relaxed interviewer. See yourself acting in the same professional manner.
2. Smile during initial contact: Whether face to face, or over the telephone, your smile inspires confidence and puts your source at ease. When conducting a telephone interview, a smile actually changes your tone of voice, making it radiate enthusiasm. *The smile must be sincere. (Try thinking of a loved one or anything that strikes you funny the next time you record an announcement for your voice mail–you’ll hear the difference.)
3. Never prejudge people: Appearances can be misleading, and first impressions are often way off base. Stay open-minded. The person who initially rubs you the wrong way or doesn’t “look the part” may prove to be fascinating or at the very least, informative.
4. Actively listen and restate: Don’t merely record information. Really listen to the responses–”hear” between the lines. Respond to answers by occasionally restating important points. For example: “So what you’re saying is, you feel emu farming compromises your vegetarian beliefs….” The twin skills of actively listening and restating will make you appear sharp as a tack and will train you to quickly pick up on a new slant to a story or perfect sidebar to accompany it.
5. Ask open-ended questions: Avoid asking closed questions that elicit yes or no answers (“Do you like emus?” or “Have you lost your mind?”) Instead, ask “Why?” (“Why would anyone want to raise emus?”) Begin questions with “What, tell me, or describe to me….”
6. Use positive body language: Look directly at the person you’re interviewing, and lean slightly forward. Be still, don’t fidget. When your body language conveys sincere interest, you instantly inspire trust. When people trust you, they relax and open up.
After a decade of telephoning experts ranging from neurosurgeons to Buddhist monks, after shouting questions from edges of swimming pools, across noisy barrooms, and over the heads of snarling dogs, and after conducting interviews in coal mines, horse barns, and brain injury centers, I still occasionally suffer from a case of butterflies. Positive thinking and recalling the six sales tips help me get the job done. And if I disregard one tiny incident in a nursing home when a hearing impaired resident hollered, ” That’s the stupidest question I ever heard!” I haven’t blown an interview yet. Practice the six tips and you’ll feel like a veteran interviewer in no time.
Post Script: I wrote this piece before I owned a PC (back in the dark ages). I've since had success emailing questions to sources. I once snail-mailed interview questions to an Amish author who lived in another state and he completed the questionaire in long-hand and returned it promptly.