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Great Interviews Start with Great Questions

Interviews can be a fun way to build your audience — here’s how to get the most out of them.

Not sure how to get started? Check out The Art of the Interview, from Blogging U‘s Writing 201 course, “Beyond the Blog Post.” Mark Armstrong covers interview prep, tools, and offers a sample reading list of great interviews to inspire you.

As humans, we’re innately curious about one another, maybe because understanding others is one way to better understand ourselves. Interviews, via podcast, video, or print can help you expand your audience and attract repeat visitors to your site. Today, we’ll look at some tips on how to craft interview questions that will make for compelling watching, listening, or reading on your blog.

Get schooled on your subject

I sometimes find that in interviews you learn more about yourself than the person learned about you.
–William Shatner

Your interview subject has said yes: congratulations! After you celebrate, start preparing: read your subject’s work. Read their blog, Google them, check out reactions to their work, and study other interviews with them. Researching your subject demonstrates respect, which is critical to building the trust and rapport that encourages your interviewee to open up. Plus, a dilettante interviewer (one who has not done their homework) has a certain awful smell that repels interviewees and readers. Don’t be that person!

One of the biggest benefits of preparation? Creating interesting, original questions that draw new insights from your subject — making for compelling reading.

Questions, questions, questions

Ask original questions. This might seem like a no-brainer, though this is where your preparation pays off. As you review your questions, check them against questions others have asked in previous interviews. The interview experience will be more interesting for your subject and your readers will get something never seen before. Win-win.

In a recent interview with the author Colm Tóibín, Jessica Gross demonstrates that she’s done her homework with this original question: In your books, there is so much meditation on being alone and how it is a double-edged sword. A lot of your characters are really pained by solitude, but then, in other moments, crave it. Could you talk a little bit about solitude in your own life?

Tell me about… Did you have a good day at school, Philbert? Yes, mom. This is a scene you may perpetrate with your kids today, or something you might have suffered through as a child. “Did you” will get you a yes or no answer, and not much more. Get open ended: “Tell me about your day…” will offer more interesting results, ones that might beg follow-up questions.

Be prepared to ditch your playbook. You’ve read everything you can. You’ve studied up. You’re mid-interview and your subject just shared something intensely interesting you’ve never heard before. Do you go on to the next question in your list? NO! In the spirit of American TV tropes, follow that car! and see where your interviewee takes you.

Elicit opinions. Readers are interested in your subject’s point of view. One way to get them talking is to make a statement and ask for their opinion. In this recent interview with Vela Mag‘s Sara Menkedick, Cheri Lucas Rowlands does just that, as she seeks to learn more about Sarah’s perspective on memoir: The personal essay and memoir is often viewed as primarily female territory. The use of ‘I’ can come off as self-indulgent, and, perhaps, is viewed as less serious when used by women. Can you touch upon that? The question, “Can you touch upon that?” is a wonderful, gentle way of inviting an interview subject to share their thinking on an interesting and/or controversial topic.

Embrace the emotional. Strong feelings, regardless of whether they’re positive or negative, stick with us — we remember them while the banal and mundane are quickly lost in busy lives. Ben Huberman does a great job going for the emotion that PostSecret‘s Frank Warren feels about his project in this question: Has being exposed to so many confessions of pain and suffering over the years affected you? Has it changed who you are?

Learn from the greats

Charlie Rose. Barbara Walters. Studs Terkel. Oprah Winfrey. Definitely a non-exhaustive list — though these four great interviewers can teach you something different about tone, style, and approach.

Which interviews have moved you? Got you thinking differently? Share your favorites in the comments.

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  1. I used to interview people for newspaper articles. The most important part of any interview is listening to the answers. Most reporters are too busy asking clever (or stupid) questions to hear the answers.If you DO listen, you will know where to take the conversation. It isn’t about you, it’s about the person you are interviewing … and even professionals forget this.

    Liked by 13 people

  2. I interviewed a dozen or so celebrities during a summer internship for a national newspaper a few years ago. We covered the arts festival the newspaper hosted, under the direction of one of their editors, from a satellite office on the varsity campus.

    Those who answered their own phones (as opposed to listing the number of their managing agent!) were the most pleasant to interview – and when deciding which story idea to pitch to our editor, this became part of the selection criteria for me after the very first day.

    I didn’t record the conversations, but made some very quick “short-hand” notes. Although articles did feature some direct quotes, the bulk of it was written in the narrative, as is the usual style for newspaper articles.

    I have to agree with Marilyn that you have to actually listen to the answers. People are much more forth-coming if you ask highly relevant follow-up questions. Being arrogant and puffed up, or highly demanding, can cost you a great story.
    I do think that you can get too caught up in asking questions though. Conversation is a two-way street. Sometimes you need to share a little of your own opinion to spark debate or to build trust.

    I find it very difficult to do more “personal” interviews closer to home though and I have not yet posted any on my blog (although I did work on a draft during the Writing 201 Long form course).

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  3. Larry king was fabulous as an interviewer. He said he learned to make them solely about the person he was talking about, leaving himself out. I’ve noticed this is becoming a lost art, but one I try to emulate as I conduct them for my blog.

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  4. Hi Everybody,
    I interviewed 19 experts. I offer bloggers blogging advice. I only asked them one question: If you could offer one tip for success to bloggers, what would it be and why?
    The post ended up with dramatically increased page views for me. I am a relatively new blogger. It received over 50 comments. I’ve never had a post with that many. I’m very proud of it. I hope you’ll check it out. Here is the link: http://wp.me/p5jxvv-sM
    Thanks,
    Janice

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The timing for this post is uncanny. I just left a class discussion board where we’re trying to assemble questions for an oral history interview. (The fact that you mentioned Studs Terkel was especially appropriate; his oral history book on WWII, “The Good War”, is one of the books we’ve read for this class.)

    I’d say “if only I could get the other members of my team to read this advice,” but it’s not so much that as wishing I could get them to actually *participate*. They seem to think waiting to start working until Wednesday night (for a project due on Thursday) is okay. It might work for them on normal projects, but it’s not gonna work on a group project! (Sorry, had to whine somewhere, but my blog today is taken by a Wednesday event…)

    Seriously, though, this is all good advice, and it’s very much the same advice we’ve been getting in our class on doing oral history, which just proves how right it is, if it’s what the professionals do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah…group projects. I can relate to the frustration of less-than-active team members.

      Researching this post, I discovered the Studs Terkel archive, which might be a good resource for your project. They’ve got some sample interviews and a link to an archive with additional audio material.

      Best of luck on your project!

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  6. Thanks for this! I am interviewing some authors for my blog, historical fiction addicts at kellylynnereimer.wordpress.com and work very hard to prepare well thought out and researched questions. I am most excited about my upcoming interview with author Christina Baker Kline of the best-selling novel, Orphan Train.

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  7. I did respond to being interviewed for other people’s blogs. Only twice. Probably enough. 🙂

    Yes, I did some dialogue and a couple of new regular readers.

    Like

    1. To do blog posts by interviewing other people, does require abit of time and blogger willing to clarify points off-line before publishing the interview(s).

      Like