Archive for the ‘interviewing’ Category

Unlike most articles, an interview does not require multiple sources for legitimacy. By implication, the subject of an interview is either famous enough or interesting enough that readers will want to hear about them in detail. As the writer, your task is to present your subject’s opinions as accurately as possible, with a minimum of comment from you. Your ability to reach this goal will depend on how you conduct the interview, and how you structure it for publication.

This goal does not mean that you simply present your questions and the interviewee’s answers. That’s a transcript – and after you’ve made a few, you will understand why experienced writers say that the worst thing you can do to a person is quote them word for word. Even the most articulate are likely to have ums and ers and other hesitations, and to repeat themselves and forget to finish sentences. For this reason, very few people cannot be made to sound like rambling drunks when quoted verbatim.

Also, many readers react with dread to a long passage presented as a quote, and are likely to skip. Give them too many long passages of one person talking, and these readers are likely to stop reading your interview.

Instead, it is understood that your interview is an edited version of the transcript. As the writer you are expected not only to correct grammar and spelling, but to condense and reorganize to make the interviewee’s statements clearer. Similarly, you might edit your questions so that the context of what is being discussed is clearer.

What you must never do, however (assuming you want to be taken seriously), is edit the interviewee’s words so that they say something they would not to say, or edit your words so that you look clever at the interviewee’s expense. Both these practices are an abuse of your power as the writer.

Conducting the interview

To help you reach these basic goals, learn as much as possible about the interviewee and the topic of the interview before it takes place. Not only is preparation likely to give you better results, but you will be able to know if the interviewee is wrong or avoiding a topic and be able to ask more thorough questions.

Whenever possible, conduct your interview in person. At the very least, conduct it over the phone or video chat like Google+’s circles. These venues will help you to ask follow-up questions more easily.

They will also make the interviewee’s comments more natural-sounding. You want to do an email interview only as a last resource. Even chat gives more natural-sounding results than email. Some experienced interviewees may prefer email because they want to think about what they say, but you may be able to make them change their minds if you tell them that a live interview requires less of their time – which is generally true.

When you do a live interview, remember that it is about the subject, not you. While you should have some questions prepared, try to make sure, especially in the early stages, that your subject talks more than you. Start them out slow by asking easy, non-controversial questions such what their background is, then steer them gradually towards more detailed questions.

Try and talk yourself only when you need to focus the interview, or to ask for clarification. You’ll be surprised how often the interviewee will mention the points you wanted to cover without any prompting if you only wait a while. Cultivate the skills of a listener, including using body language to show your interest.

Occasionally, you may interview two or three people together. When you do, have each interviewee introduce themselves at the start, so you can identify their voices as you transcribe the interview. Ideally, you could have them name themselves each time they speak, but that can be awkward and is easily forgotten as the interview continues.

If you do have to do an email interview, see if your subject will consider several rounds of questions. The second and subsequent rounds will be shorter, but you may need them to get clarifications or details. These details may include the proper spelling of names, although you can sometimes use a web search instead.

Writing the interview

As you prepare to write, you will probably notice that the interviewee has some pet phrases and sentence structures. Use these quirks as a way of representing character, but not so much that the interviewee sound ridiculous or limited.

If you are preparing a transcript, you may also have to decide how to write down your interviewee’s favorite structures. For example, you may decide after a few examples to omit throwaway phrases like “I think.” Similarly, you may have to decide whether a dash or a semi-colon best represents how the interviewee joins two thoughts together

When you come to write your interview, resist the temptation to present it in simple question and answer form. The more interesting – and more difficult – choice is to use regular paragraphs, weaving the quotes into the grammar of your own sentences. Readers find this structure easier to read, and it has the advantage of making summaries and explanations easier.

But, regardless of this format, try to find a quote that will serve as a conclusion, even if you have to pick it out of an earlier point in the interview. Often, I find that ending an interview by talking about future plans, finishing with, “Is there anything we haven’t covered that you want to make sure gets said?” will provide that conclusion.

You will find that some editors dislike ending with a quote. If you ever write for someone with this preference, restating the last quote in different words will often be enough. Otherwise, a modest conclusion will usually do.

All these practices make an interview very different from the typical article. In a typical article, you may quote, but usually not at such length, and the effect on the structure is minimal. By contrast, in an interview, the content becomes the structure. Your goal is to discover the structure implicit in the content.

Read Full Post »

In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, I read yet another article suggesting that if you work from home, you should dress for important calls as though you were at the office. The idea is that this bit of role-playing will help you to focus on the business at hand and act more professionally.

Well, whatever works. I suppose. But I know that such role-playing doesn’t help me one bit.

Whenever I try such a suggestion, instead of being focused, I’m distracted by the falsity of what I’m doing. Like pretending to agree when I have reservations, or to be in a good mood when I want to dig a hole and fling myself in, dressing for a phone call feels forced and pointless to me. Such efforts do me more harm than good, because I keep thinking I’m being a phony instead of concentrating on the business at hand.

As a result, after trying to play dressup once or twice, I quickly gave up bothering. Now, I happily take calls in my usually working attire: a T-shirt, shorts, and bare feet. A sentence or two into a call, I’m too busy thinking about the issue at hand to waste any worry on what I’m wearing.

Business experts who echo each other on this subject (I’d say “parrot” except that, as the owner of four, I know that they don’t say things mindlessly) would probably say no good could come of my casualness. Yet I think the record speaks for itself. In my casual but sublime outfit, I’ve successfully negotiated the price of a series of ads. I’ve arranged bundling deals for commercial software. I’ve aced job interviews. I’ve successfully interviewed leaders of the free software movement, as well as countless managers and CEOs of national and international corporations. Not one of these people — who must amount to several hundred people over the past eight years — has ever complained that I was anything less than professional and competent.

Under the circumstances, I fail to see why I should spend time ironing a shirt and pants or knotting a tie before a professional call. I could better use my pre-time call making notes of the points I want to cover, or drinking a cup of peppermint tea to help calm myself as I think about strategies.

It would be another story, of course, if I were doing a visual teleconference. But I think that, although the technology for such conferences is now more or less ready, there’s a reason why the idea has never caught on since I first saw a demo as a four year-old-child: few people really want such a thing. Given a choice, most of us, I think, prefer dressing or sitting comfortably while we talk on the phone to whatever minor advantages being seen might confer. Not worrying about such trivialities as our clothes help us to concentrate on what really matters in our telecommuting calls.

That’s not to say that some people might not find dressing up for a call is helpful. I’ve seen too much to believe that everybody responds the same way, so I expect there are people who find that putting on a suit and tie or a pair of nylons helps them when they take business calls from home.

Yet, at the same time, don’t feel that dressing up is compulsory, or a piece of magic that will automatically work for you. In some cases, the effort may only be a distraction.

Read Full Post »

At school and university, I always dove headfirst into class discussions, excited by ideas and eager to express my own. I was probably a selfish beast, not overly interested in other’s people’s contributions unless they sparked new ideas in me. Although I eventually learned to be less egocentric and more restrained, I’m sure I carried the same tendency into adulthood.

That’s why, when I was interviewed last week about OpenOffice.org’s Calc spreadsheet by CFO Magazine, I was surprised when I had to struggle to give ideas and to say something interesting. The 8AM call had something to do with it, but only a little. Abruptly, I realized that being a journalist and interviewing people myself had actually taught me to listen.

For nearly three years, I’ve done anywhere from three to fifteen interviews per month — mostly on the phone, but occasionally face-to-face as well. By definition, an interview is not about the interviewer — it’s about the person being interviewed. And if I don’t draw the person out, then I am in the annoying position of having to craft an article with too little information. So, I suppose I’m been highly motivated to learn.

It helps, too, that I realized early on not to come into an interview with my own agenda. In one of the first interviews I conducted, I planned to debunk the common opinion about the subject and asked several questions while playing devil’s advocate. The approach made the subject so suspicious of my motivations that he tried to insist on having control over what I wrote — a demand that made the interview unpublishable, since it would have compromised my independence.

From that, I learned that it’s better to ask open-ended questions rather than ones slanted too strongly in one direction. Instead of getting too specific, I let the discussion wend its own way, asking more specific questions mostly for clarification, and changing topic only to assure that all the points I wanted to raise get covered.

The advantage of this tactic is not only that I have to prepare less for most interviews, but that I also consistently get information and slants that I would have missed if I had tried to control the interview more closely, because my subjects are more forthcoming. Even the very reticent, I’ve found, become more forthcoming when allowed to dominate the discussion.

This approach leaves me in the position of a tugboat to an incoming ship, guiding the discussion, but mostly leaving each subject to continue under their own power. About from a few navigational nudges, most of what I have to do is to utter the occasional comment to show that I’m paying attention or, if talking in person, to make sure that I lean forward facing the interview and focusing my eyes on them and keep my eyes on the interviewee to reassure them that I’m listening.

At times, too, I summarize or rephrase what I think the person has said, asking, “Could I say … ” or “Would it be fair to say that …” This tactic has the dual advantage of checking that I have understood and reassuring the interview that I’ve grasped the point.

Of course, often I do have to mention perspectives that the interviewee doesn’t share, so that I can get their reactions. But, instead of treating the interview as a discussion, the way I might have done a few years before, I raise the perspective as a hypothetical one, or observe that “some people say.”

I don’t have to mention the fact that I would be among those who would say what I’m about to mention. As enjoyable as a debate might be, an interview isn’t about me.

I round off these tactics by concluding by asking whether there is anything I’ve left out or that the subject would like to emphasize. Some interviews use these questions as a launching pad for pontifications, but, just as often, I get another two or three nuggets of fact that were previously half-concealed. Often, I get pithy quotes that I can use to attract reader’s interest in the introduction, or that can round-off my article’s conclusion.

When I come to transcribe an interview, another advantage of focusing on listening emerges. Having followed what the subject has said, I know how to punctuate what someone says in order to echo the way that they sound. In this way, the quotes in my articles give readers some sense of what the subject sounds like, although no doubt the experience is overlaid with a heavy veneer of my intonations.

The result of this approach is that, while I’ve often had errors of fact in the finished article pointed out by an interview subject, and people haven’t always approved of the opinions in an article in which they are quoted, I almost never have anyone complain that I misrepresented them. I work hard at being more than a conduit for other people’s ideas but I figure that, if I get what’s said wrong, then the conclusions I draw will be wrong as well.

In fact, now that I think, I realize that I could never do my job — or, at least, not do it as well — if I hadn’t learned a thing or two about listening. If I sometimes miss dominating the discussion, I figure that I was overdue for growing up anyway.

Besides, there are other times that I can be a more active participant. And, when I am, my enjoyment is greater because I’ve learned to pay closer attention to what other people are saying.

Read Full Post »