EWF15 – A Discussion About Interviewing

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Feature image from THEWRAP

I had never really thought much about what makes a good interview; never mind what makes a good interviewer.  I thought interview skills were for journalists and police officers.  I was wrong.  Being able to interview a stranger is a wonderful skill that most writers and bloggers don’t know they need.

As a writer, interviews are a wonderful way to flesh out characters, delve into unknown areas and accurately portray various professions.  Interviewing skills help when writing profiles and long-form articles for publications.  Many novelists even recommend conducting interviews with your own characters as a means of getting deeper into their minds.

As a blogger, interviewing skills are also wonderful.  Interviews are a refreshing way to cover the content you might not be proficient in writing about yourself.  Interviews with other bloggers, who are also experts in your niche make wonderful articles and give your readers a break from your ‘voice’.

When I first started blogging I only ever wrote one type of blog article; the journalistic-How-To-article in which I included a funny dumb thing I had done and then all the research I did afterwards so that I would do it better next time (much like the article you are reading now).  I realised that my writing had fallen into a funk.  I started to research DIFFERENT TYPES OF BLOG ARTICLES and became interested in interviews.

My first few interviews were terrible.  Each of them over a long period of time via back and forth emails.  One particularly bad interview involved a Spanish speaking subject, an internet connection and a lot of cutting and pasting into Babelfish.  I blamed the subject.

So how can we get better at interviewing?  What does a good interview look like?  And what are some things we really need to steer clear of?

I recently attended a panel at the NATIONAL WRITERS CONFERENCE where four professional interviewers shared their experience of interviewing as well as a few tips and tricks for the audience.  Below is a little write up of the panel discussion.

Obviously they didn’t speak exactly like I have written, it was more like regular chatting.

Madeline Dore

Madeline Dore is the editor of EXTRAORDINARY ROUTINES, an arts writer and the deputy editor of ARTS HUB.  When speaking about interviewing subjects, Madeline spoke about the privilege of being privy to something.  You become a listener.

Madeline prefers face to face interviews, sighting them as a wonderful luxury.  Interviews via email tend to result in a more guarded response from the subject.  Madeline did mention however that emails are beneficial if you are working to a deadline.  Give your subjects options and be respectful of their time.  Which I gather to mean, let them choose what works best for them.

The panelists all nodded when Madeline mentioned that booking and pursuing interview subjects can be time-consuming.  When pushing to organise interviews with people, having a publication behind you really helps.

Madeline mentioned that it’s not out of the question to ask your subject about referring a friend.  Subjects will often know someone you can interview.  Don’t be afraid to ask people to introduce you.  This makes the next interview flow comfortably as you have that connection from the start.

When preparing for an Extraordinary Routines’ interview, Madeline reads past interviews her subjects have done. In these interviews, she is looking for something they haven’t said.  She is looking for gaps.  This helps her to go into the interview with a fresh conversation…then open up to where the conversation might go.

Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions, you often get great answers.

Silence.  Don’t be afraid to allow your subject time think and reflect.  Madeline mentioned that it’s natural to try and fill that silence.  This rings true for me also.  While studying teaching, we were told that you should count to five very slowly in your head after asking a question to the whole class.  You are meant to ask the question and then wait.  Two hands will always shoot up immediately.  After five seconds, some children who have never raised their hands before will have come up with a response.  People think at different speeds.

It’s importance to make the subject as comfortable and relaxed as possible.  Sometimes wine gets the interview going.

Emily Laidlaw

Emily Laidlaw is a writer and critic who writes for THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN, the Big Issue and Metro.  When asked how she started interviewing she said, I’m nosey, I love interviewing, it’s not so solitary.

Emily stated that she primarily interviews authors.  Her number one tip would be to read their novel.  Her worst interview was when she had not finished the novel of the author she was interviewing. When you aren’t prepared you start with a lack of confidence.  You need to feel prepared.

While she was very clear about preparation there was one thing she did not do.  Emily personally avoids reading past interviews her subject have done as it keeps her impression of the person uninfluenced.

When organising interviews Emily agreed that having a title or publication behind you when approaching subjects or their publicists was a huge help.  Publicists are generally good to deal with.

Emily is a huge fan of face to face interviews as people are less guarded.  It is also easier to read and respond to their body language.  She tries to meet her subject in a quiet cafe and finds they quickly relax sitting with a coffee.  This way, you can have a chat before you start.  Email follow-ups are great, but there was a concern that people stress about the wording of email replies. 

Emily likened interviews with being on a date; you need to lead into harder questions.  It’s important for the interviewer to always be gauging the response about whether to push further.

When dealing with a bad interview, Emily mentioned the possibility of actually calling the subject out on it.  Acknowledge they seem uncomfortable and address the issue.  Just say it.  The withholding, she stated, could also become part of the interview.

Neha Kale

NEHA KALE is a writer and journalist.  She writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Collective, The Vine.  She also regularly contributes to The Daily Life.  Neha interviews a lot of artists for her work and often considers what her subjects might have to offer a larger conversation.

Neha, like the others, preferred face to face interviews, as she found they offered a more generous dialogue.  Interviewing a subject in their home can be strange but also very great for profile writing.  There is a lot that can be gathered from a subject’s home.  Email’s are fine for follow up but responses are very canned.

When preparing for an interview, Neha stated she likes to binge read everything.

Neha reminded the audience that it’s important your subjects know you’re not going to push them into discomfort.  Your subject is putting a lot of trust in you.  It’s a delicate thing.  Sometimes it’s important to reveal a little about yourself too.  This establishes an exchange between you.  Can’t be all one sided.

When technology fails during an interview it can ruin the chemistry you have established.  You must be very careful with your recording material.  It can be hard to get back to that place if you have to stop and fix things.

Neha stated that to save a bad interview you can always reschedule, however she has been lucky and never had to do this.  Each of the panelists agreed, with a ‘bad’ interview you can always include the negatives.

Veronica Sullivan

VERONICA SULLIVAN is  the current online editor of Kill Your Darlings and the assistant manager of THE STELLA PRIZE.  Veronica was also the participating host of this panel.

When preparing for interviews Veronica stated that she asks far more questions than she needs.  Afterwards, she will read through past interviews and scratch things they have spoken a lot about.  

Prepare questions.  You will probably not use them but writing them out and knowing they are there helps.   Also, the tone of the publication she is writing for can guide the interview.  (And makes it easier to secure the interview).

Don’t be afraid to be a gushing fan.  It’s a way of telling your subject that you want to be there.

An interview can go so many different ways.  During the interview, she recommended hiding your recording device.  This can help the subject to forget that they are being recorded.  Look at the person while they’re talking and don’t look too much at your questions.  While it might seem natural to check your questions to help your own preparations, it can feel like you’re trying to wrap it up and not willing to be flexible.  Constantly checking and reading your next questions just creates a weird vibe (Veronica didn’t say that, that was just me and my experience.)

Ultimate responsibility of the interview falls on the interviewer and this includes choosing the subject to interview.

Each of the panelist agreed with Veronica that in taking on the role of ‘interviewer’ you assume a moral and ethical responsibility towards your subject.  You need to tread carefully.  Subject does not owe you anything.

You need to tread carefully.

The subject does not owe you anything.

So I think that’s all you need to know.  

What are you waiting for?  Set forth and interview!


by Meg

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