10 tips how to do interviews that don’t suck

Over the last year my interview-taking activity considerably accelerated. I’ve had some wins and some fails, but I think I’m getting the hang of this. Hence I’d like to share some simple techniques and basic principles of doing interviews that don’t suck.

1. Ask sensible questions. Even if you absolutely adore the person you are interviewing, resist the urge to find out what color or book or sex position is his/her favorite. Even celebrities find this stupid and annoying. Your keywords here are: insightful, thought-provoking. Your job is to publish an interview that people will like to get back to after a while to check for presented facts or opinions. You can’t do that without the next principle, which is….

2. Research, research, research. Read as much as possible to understand the person’s background, how the story you are covering evolved, what other influential people ever said (especially opponents). It gives you a 360° view on the subject and helps asking questions that are interesting. It also shows the interviewed person that you did your homework, so the person will be more inclined to be most outspoken with you. Which is what you are looking for.

3. Pick one main theme and build the interview around it. Find a trending topic, one big reason to interview the person. Make sure the person has a hands-on knowledge on this topic.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask controversial questions. I’ll tell you that: it’s bloody annoying to read interviews where both sides readily agree on everything so much that they nearly box tonsils. Leave that crap for teenage magazines. The person you are interviewing doesn’t have to be right (for a given value of right), but if his/her reply wasn’t interesting, you failed.

5. If you have additional questions, just ask. Because you never know. During one of the interviews I recently did, I asked a quite innocent question just to clarify some stuff I heard, and the answer revealed some particularly interesting facts. Asking additional questions is a must to make sure that the person gets to the point and actually answers your question. Otherwise your readers will get bored and leave unsatisfied.

6. Don’t start the interview with the “introduce yourself” nonsense. Just write a one or two paragraphs long profile text as an introduction. I broke that rule when interviewing David Revoy right after the release of Sintel. Sure, I got away with that, but  it’s only because the rest of the text was interesting.

7. Make sure the interview has a well articulated end. Personally, I bloody hate the “thank you for answering my questions, %username%, I absolutely love you! — why, thank you for asking me those, and what a nice hair style you have!”. Yuk! Get the person to say something emotionally about the main topic of the interview so that it would somehow sum up what he/she thinks. Do it surreptitiously, if you can.

8. Edit the text. Unless you are asking some really technical questions that demand long replies just to explain a concept (and there are ways to deal with that, too), your reader shouldn’t bang the head against a wall of text. The interview also shouldn’t contain paragraphs full of ums, ers, and suchlike just because you think it’s cool to keep the conversation style. The difficult part is keeping original tone while editing, and there is no simple advice here other than “understand your conversation partners”. It takes time to learn this through trial and error.

9. Feel free to reorder questions/answers. If you have a long, long conversation (especially face to face), the interview will divert from the topic as many times as it can. Some interesting details related to previously asked questions might float up as well. The net outcome should be a text where conversation flows from A to B, and questions are logically connected. And read again the Tip #7.

10. Done editing? Send the final text for approval. What I’ve found out is that fairly often people have some last minute edits to what they said, especially when interviews take days or weeks (yes, it does happen). And if you do some serious editing, they really want having a look at the result before it goes online.

TL;DR: research, be bold, edit away like there is no tomorrow. And treat your job seriously.

Oh, and you can troll me all you like for not following any of those principles :)

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