Interviews are a great way to practice your writing skills, regardless of the genre you work in. But how can you write interview questions that produce effective conversations? Read on to hear some expert advice on building an interview process and how to write interview questions that produce better conversations and writing.
The Magic of an Interview
Interviews are far more than a tool for a hiring process. For writers, interviews produce ideas, voice, and more. But in an actual interview, you want to have a conversation, not an interrogation. A good interviewer makes their interviewee comfortable.
Going back to your list of interview questions all the time can rattle the person you're interviewing. Your interview shouldn't be something the person could have answered via email. The questions should prompt a conversation that extends beyond the prepared questions.
So how do you get your interviewee comfortable? How do you prep questions that prompt conversations?
I love this story from Porter Anderson:
I interviewed Cokie Roberts (the Emmy-winning journalist) once for a magazine. I asked her about all the needlepoint she had in her office. She grabbed a piece she was working on, a duck, and worked on it as we chatted. We found out her favorite vacation spot wasn't far from my home sea island off the South Carolina coast.
Your ability to be present, to keep your nose out of your notebook, will make your interviews shine with life.
To be more present, I always write out about a dozen questions before going into a face-to-face or phone interview. President Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Your questions are your battle plans. You might not use all of them, but they prepare your mind for the task ahead and set you up for a more effective conversation.
How Do I Write Better Interview Questions?
I asked a panel of writing friends what kinds of questions they ask in interviews. Here are six pieces of expert advice to help you write better questions:
1. Ask about the person's actions.
“It depends on the person, but usually I ask them about their specific habits and practices,” says Jeff Goins. “I'm less interested in what they would write in a book and more interested in how they try to apply the ideals they write or speak about.”
Jeff is trying to get under a person's rhetoric to see the routines they've cultivated to be successful. If you can get people to describe their actions rather than their beliefs about themselves, you'll see a clearer picture of them, one unmarred by slogans. Whether it's handling a stressful situation or the habits that developed their leadership skills, routines reveal a lot about a person.
2. Ask “forward” questions.
Porter Anderson suggests focusing the interview on the here and now and future.
“Never ask, ‘What keeps you up at night?' Ask ‘What's going to keep you up tonight after this interview?'” says Porter.
“The past, unless your interviewee is relatively unknown, is research-able. Keep in mind that as much as we all may like our laurels, resting on them is never as interesting as diving off them into a new pool. The reminiscence interview is never as cool as it sounds.”
“The ‘What's the best part of the next thing you're doing?' question will engage your subject's current, forward-looking energy. You get a more excited interviewee, who wants to tell you what she or he is into.”
Asking about a future position or prospect lets your interviewee know you're interested in more than what they've accomplished in the past.
3. Ask open-ended questions.
Morgan's goal is to get athletes and coaches talking, so he avoids closed questions that only require a short answer.
“I try to ask open-ended questions that can't be answered with a simple ‘yes' or ‘no,'” he says. “I also ask people to explain to me certain aspects. Such as, ‘describe how this team came together this season.'”
“I also say ‘how' a lot. For example, ‘How was your first-ever varsity start at quarterback?'”
What a cool idea: to get them talking, just write the word “HOW” in bold letters at the top of your list of questions. Every time you look at it, ask, “How?”
“How do you do that? How do you feel about that? How did it go?”
Asking “how” opens the conversation to learning and process.
4. Ask dumb questions.
“Dumb questions are my favorite,” says Marissa Villa. “Today, I asked someone, ‘Um, what does that mean?' when he used an abbreviation. You can't be afraid to ask dumb questions.”
If you're confused, don't move along to the next question. Ask for clarification, even if you think you sound stupid. You don't want to start writing your article and then realize you don't know what you're talking about because you were confused during the interview.
“It also strokes people's egos when you tell them they're the expert and you want to learn from them,” says Marissa.
Again, in a conversation, you don't fire off a list of questions without stopping. Your goal is to understand the person better, so don't be afraid to ask for an explanation when you need it.
5. Ask pointed questions and light-hearted questions.
When you prepare, go beyond common interview questions and try to mix up the tone of your questions. Don't be afraid of the tough questions, but also allow for less serious questions as well.
“I try to ask a few pointed questions that contrarians might ask,” says Jeff. It's always good to poke a little, as long as you don't go too far. “And throw in the occasional light-hearted question for fun,” he says.
This is a good way to tailor your interview to your audience. Do your research and see what the person has already covered in previous interviews. Then consider your audience and what parts of your interviewee's story or experiences will most resonate with them.
6. Ask short questions and then follow up.
Don't try to pack all your questions into one super-mega question. “Instead of asking a long-winded question,” says Morgan, “split it up into two parts. Follow up questions can be key.”
Not only are shorter related easier to process for your interviewee, they ensure you get answers for all parts of the question instead of limiting your interview process when the person only answers one part.
Your Turn to Ask the Questions
Whether you're working on nonfiction, a memoir, or even fiction, interviews are a great way to grow your creative writing and communication skills at the same time. Go the extra mile to make your interview subjects feel comfortable and use these tips to write some amazing interview questions.
You might be surprised by not only by all you can learn from the answers to questions, but also by your own enjoyment in the moment.
How about you? What kinds of questions do you ask? Let us know in the comments.
Today, we're going to come up with a lot of questions. Fifty questions, actually. Then we're actually going ask someone a few of them. Sound fun?
First, let's come up with a person to interview, some local figure. How about the mayor of your town, or a columnist for a local newspaper, or maybe the person in charge of the city dump? Pick someone with an email address that's easy to find.
Next, imagine that local figure is your hero. You're almost obsessed with the trashman, for example. You're fascinated about their dump truck. You want to know about every piece of trash they've ever picked up. Why? Because at least half of good journalism, in my opinion, is curiosity, and it's easier to be curious about someone you admire.
Then, start brainstorming questions. Come up with forward questions, open-ended questions, questions about their actions. Brainstorm pointed questions and light-hearted questions. You should even think of a few dumb questions.
When you get to fifty, pick out your favorite five, and write out an email to your little local hero. Say you're on assignment for the Write Practice. Post your questions in the Pro Practice Workshop here with the info about who you'll send them to.