the challenge was to fit the best of what they had shared into limited space. Other interview subjects took the classic cowboy approach: stoic answers of one or two words, no matter what leading questions I threw at them.
While you can’t control your interview subject entirely, you can at least come prepared with some research, questions and some tricks to get them talking. Here are a few to start with.
Be on time. One of my former profs used to tell a story of how she once went to interview a busy executive. She apologetically showed up 20 minutes late, but he graciously welcomed her into his office. Just as she was starting to hit her stride, the exec glanced at his wrist, thanked her for coming, and ushered her out of his office before heading to his next meeting.
Be prepared. Research the person, their work, and their subject area. You’re after new material with an interview, so don’t waste time asking questions about foundation stuff you could easily find elsewhere.
Create a cheat sheet. Take some quiet time to develop a set of questions. Often, you won’t use it much, but it will give you confidence that you won’t get tongue-tied with nothing to ask. I’ve found that I’ll start with my list but then generally ignore it as I run through the interview. At the end, I’ll check it to see if I’ve missed anything.
Ask clear questions. While you want to avoid “yes, no” questions, you should keep it simple. Don’t ramble on, touching several subjects before finally coming to rest on a three-part question. Stay focused so your interview subject can easily grasp what you’re asking.
Stay focused. Certainly, spend a little time on casual conversation to break the ice and get relaxed. But once you’re into the interview, don’t wander off into irrelevant alleys. Stay on topic, listen closely to your interview subject, and spot interesting avenues of conversation instead.
“So, let me see if I’ve got this right…” Interviewing experts means translating expert-ese into plain language. If you’re not sure you understand something, paraphrase it and read it back to your subject to make sure you’ve got it down.
Don’t pass up the chance to shut up. When conversation lags, you may feel the urge to fill the silence with your own chatter. Wait a moment. Master the pregnant pause. Let your interview subject tell you something interesting instead.
Pay attention on the way out. You’ve turned off your recorder and closed your notebook. Everyone relaxes. Small talk ensues; you ask a few casual questions on the way out the door. And your interview subject suddenly gives you the best quote of the interview! Relax. Shake their hand, close the door, then pull out your notepad and get that quote down on paper while it’s still fresh, along with any other final observations.
I'm a science writer based in Saskatoon, Canada. While I write on a wide range of topics, I most often find myself exploring life and environmental sciences as well as the social science aspects of science communications. Examples include agricultural biotechnology, food and water security, and public response to innovations in genetic engineering and energy production.