Whether you are a copywriter or a reporter, you will inevitably be required to do an interview -- and excellent interviews require excellent techniques. Here are some tips on getting the most from your subject!

Be Prepared.

Always read up on your subject before hand. Your source will appreciate your efforts, and you will be able to skip questions that are answerable by an assistant, book or document. When scheduling the appointment, ask your source to suggest documents or other sources of information about the topic that you will be discussing. The interviewee will appreciate your interest and often share valuable information before the interview. Of course, you should remember to take care of the "housekeeping"such as making sure your recording devices are fully charged.

Also, remember that your devices might fail you at the most inopportune time and Plan B is to bring along some pens and a notebook.

  Set The Rules Of The Interview Up Front

Be sure your subject understands your project exactly. (This will help you keep the interview on track). Additionally, the interviewee must understand that everything that he or she says is "on the record." It is best to establish these ground rules when making the interview appointment. Although most government officials have enough experience with the media to indicate when something is "off-the record" or "on background," other people may not totally understand the subtleties.

Remember that an upfront clarification may be required (especially when your source's job (or even his or her life) could be endangered by being quoted).

   Be On Time!

The worst impression you can make on a source is being late for the interview. Be observant!

Observe details of the place and of your interviewing partner; this can add color to your story. If you are interviewing people in their home or office, be sure to get a good look around and notice what you see. For example, they may have some old photos that show them in a more personal light. You may start an interview with assumptions about a person and leave with a completely different impression. However, this may be exactly what your source intended. Gosh darn it, isnt perception a tricky business? Try to talk to others, colleagues or friends of your source, to get a bigger picture.

Be Polite
Don't rush your source!

It's important to establish a polite rapport and a level of comfort for the interviewee. Some interviewees, on the other hand, need a couple minutes to become comfortable talking to reporters. Even though you may only have 30 minutes for an interview, try not to rush your subject. If you sense the interviewee is in a hurry, adjust your timing accordingly. Always keep in mind that everyone is different! Taking the time to get to know your sources will prove valuable, especially when you need to call with follow-up questions or use them as a source for future stories. If the interview goes well, it may even go beyond the scheduled time. Give yourself plenty of time between appointments to avoid scheduling conflicts.

Listen, But When You Don't Understand, Say So

Keep your audience in mind! One reason you are conducting this interview is to explain the whole story to your readers. If your subject uses scientific jargon or explanations only his/her peers would understand, politely interrupt and ask for further explanation. Hey, you're just a writer. Never be embarrassed about not knowing something.

Silence Is Golden

Sooner or later you will have to ask the tough questions that your subject may not be willing to discuss. When you start asking those provocative questions, the answers will most likely be clipped, useless or carefully worded. You may not get an answer at all. If this occurs, look your source in the eye and don't say a word. In most cases, the interviewee will begin to feel uncomfortable and begin to loosen up and share information again. If this doesn't work, ask for sources who might be able to answer your question.

Maintain Eye Contact

A reporter who spends most of the interview bent over taking notes or looking into a notebook can be as disconcerting as a microphone jammed into an interviewee's face. While taking notes and recording the interview, maintain as much eye contact as possible. Learn to take abbreviated notes looking down only once in a while so you can focus on your interviewee. This will make the interview more like a conversation, and everyone will feel more relaxed.

Before You Leave, Ask Your Subject If you Missed Anything.

Perhaps the interviewee is burning to give you useful information, but you didn't think to ask a leading question. Don't leave without getting a contact number or e-mail address and a good time to call with follow-up questions. Always ask for other sources. Colleagues or friends of the interviewee may be more knowledgeable or willing and able to speak to you. Thank your source for taking the time to answer your questions before you leave.

Review Your Notes Right After The Interview

Don't wait until the end of the day or later in the week to review your notes. Go over them right away, while everything is still fresh in your mind, filling in your shorthand and elaborating on your observations. Skip that date for drinks with your office pals until everything has been reviewed and organized.


A Special Note: Dealing With Engineers

As a copywriter, you will eventually be assigned the dreaded task of interviewing an engineer. To make things tougher, the engineer will probably be the person who invented the product you've been asked to write about -- so you're already up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Be polite and inquisitive. Remember that most engineers are incredibly bright people -- but with all those numbers and facts swimming around their skulls, they tend to get impatient and forget that the rest of us aren't quite that bright -- and we need plain, simple words to understand their hard-wired brains. That's of course where you come in. Your job will be to extract the information and boil it down to simple words. You might be different, but our experience has been to never "bounce your ideas" off an engineer. Most of the time, it doesn't work. Wait until you talk to the marketing guy or the President. Best of luck. Some Advice: Always make sure your interviewee knows the purpose of the interview. One of our Canadian Copywriter members reports that when he did an interview with a high-ranking Public Transit Official, the man was caught by surprise. It wasn't an opportune time since the official was caught up in some controversial local issues and reticent to express himself, fearing that the interviewer was part of a perceived conspiracy against him. Throughout the interview, the official was constantly worried about "what other people thought of him" or "who said that?". Our member tried to assure him that he wasn't from the enemy ranks, but he wasn't successful and the whole interview turned out to be an incredibly sad mess. In retrospect, our member said that the man he interviewed might have had power, prestige and money, but he lived under a cloud of suspicion that just wasn't any way to live.