Don’t Panic, Interview — Part Six

Editor’s Note: This post is the sixth in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two, Part ThreePart Four and Part Five.

For more than thirty years, I’ve been interviewing different people. Some of them are well-known celebrities and bestselling authors. Some of them are unknown people.  No matter who I’m interviewing, I get a touch of panic right before the interview happens. Maybe it’s the same sort of adrenaline rush that I’ve read about in figure skating. I’m hesitant to admit it but it still happens. Whether well-known or unknown, each of these people have graciously answered my questions and provided the story material that I’ve needed for my magazine articles.

Whether you interview on the telephone or in person, it’s an excellent skill for every writer to add to their skill set and highly recommended. For beginning writers, I recommend you begin with someone familiar—such as a family member or a friend. Prepare a list of questions, establish a time to interview them and turn on your tape recorder. I recommend taping the interview so you can capture the quotations and don’t always have to be tied to writing notes. I’ve never been able to write fast enough (even learning shorthand in high school—and haven’t used it since) to capture someone talking at a regular pace. It slows down the interview process to continually pause and for the person to wait as you complete your notes.  I record mostly to make sure I get my quotations right.

If you are recording on the telephone, I recommend you use the Radio Shack “Smart” Phone Recorder Control.  For legal reasons, you need to tell the other person that you are recording and secure their permission on the tape (the rules are different in every state but to make sure it’s the best procedure). This device makes recording easy because it’s directly connected from your telephone line into any tape recorder. Telephone interviews are some of the most difficult—because you can’t see the other person for the visuals to add to the article. Also it’s a situation much more out of your control. For example, the other person can have an interruption, such as another phone call, and suddenly end your conversation—and some times you are stuck not getting your required information.

Whether on the phone or in person, make sure you prepare with a list of questions and a plan. It’s not a firm plan because other questions will develop during the interview. Like many of the skills that I’m highlighting in this series, interviewing is something to practice repeatedly and you will improve your techniques.

Over the years, I’ve been amazed at the people who forget about my tape recorder and will say to me, “I’ve never told this to anyone but…” Often this story material becomes some of the best in my articles.

During the interview, I always make sure to find out how to return to the person for possible follow-up questions or to give them a copy of the article. If you don’t, you will be shocked how you think of one important question as you write the article or you hang up the phone—and can’t get back to the person.  In general, the high profile the person, it’s more typical for them to call you—and not reveal their phone number—often for control purposes.

There is much more to say about interviewing. It’s an extensive topic but I’m going to pick up tomorrow on what to do after you have the information to write your magazine article as I continue this series.


One Response to “Don’t Panic, Interview — Part Six”

  1. violet Says:

    Terry, what about interviewing by email? I’ve done that and it worked well – plus no butterflies — although you don’t get the sensory stuff like how the person bites their nails and what they’re wearing and how their kids interupt begging for a snack etc. which certainly adds another dimension. (If you’re planning to address this in a future post, sorry to jump the gun – and I’ll read it in your blog.)

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