Writing Workshop #3 – Top Interview Tips

There’s really no right or wrong way to approach an interview, as it depends on who you’re interviewing, what you’re comfortable with and the type of interview it’s likely to be, however preparation is key. You only have to think of a bumbling Hugh Grant interviewing Julia Roberts on behalf of Horse and Hounds magazine in the film Notting Hill to realise that not knowing anything about the subject or the person you’re interviewing is never a smart move. So, apart from doing your research and being thoroughly familiar with the person you’re interviewing (either over the phone or in person) what are the top tips for a successful interview?

Interview Location

  • Choose a suitable location for the interview. For example, if the topic is about farming and you’re interviewing a dairy farmer, then an interview on their farm would be ideal, plus it will add atmosphere to your interview when you write it up – the smells, sights and sounds. Sometimes a neutral location like a café may be most appropriate.

Phone Interviews

  • Ideally do a phone interview when you’re at home and at a time when you’ll have peace and quiet, no noisy flatmates or kids running around to disturb you.
  • Ensure you record the interview as well as make notes and inform your interviewee that you’d like to record the phone call.

The Actual Interview

  • If you’re doing the interview in a café then offer to buy your interviewee a drink.
  • Don’t launch straight into the interview questions, put the person at ease by asking after their journey or whether they’ve been to this café before – a bit of chit chat. Now’s a good time to thank them for taking the time to talk to you.
  • Do a voice recording and take a notebook. The voice recording is there to get an accurate account of the interview and the notebook can be used to make notes of things the recording can’t pick up such as what the interviewee is wearing, the location and any other interesting details. The notebook is also a backup if the voice recorder fails.
  • It may sound obvious but check how to spell your interviewee’s name.
  • Make sure you’ve thoroughly prepared your questions but be open to deviating from them if your interviewee says something interesting or unexpected.
  • Listen to your interviewee’s answers and tailor your next question to what they’ve just said.
  • If your interviewee refuses to answer a question then come back to it later on in the interview (they may have warmed to you by then!), or try rewording it.
  • Try asking, ‘Is there anything I didn’t ask that you thought I would?’ as the final question – you might get an interesting answer.
  • At the end of the interview thank them for their time and also ask if it’d be OK to contact them again if you have any further questions.

After the Interview

  • If at all possible transcribe the voice recording and write up your notes as soon as you get home whilst it’s fresh in your mind.

Admittedly, I’ve not always followed my own advice because sometimes circumstances got in the way. In my first Writing Workshop post I wrote about a phone interview I did with playwright, Greg Cullen. I had done my preparation, the phone call was scheduled, and I phoned Cullen from the peace and quiet of my study and recorded the call. Perfect. However, the set up was not so perfect when I did a phone interview with actor Matthew Rhys (Kevin Walker in the US TV series Brothers and Sisters). I’d contacted Rhys’ agent and to my surprise and delight I managed to secure an interview with him. The agent took my mobile number and we arranged a day and an approximate time for Rhys to call. The only problem was I was working in a factory at the time. So when my phone rang with a withheld number I answered it and had to leg it out of the factory to my car whilst making small talk with Rhys who was sat on a train travelling back to London from Stratford-upon-Avon where he was performing in the RSC’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Incredibly, the interview turned out fine. Once I reached my car and caught my breath I managed to do a proper interview and scribble down notes, whilst Matthew Rhys, in-between losing service on his mobile when the train went through a tunnel, was friendly, helpful and a joy to talk to.

What are your tips for a successful interview and more importantly if you could interview anyone who would it be?

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5 Comments

  1. Hi Kate. What you’ve written here is really interesting. It’s comprehensive as well as informative. It sounds like you know your stuff! I appreciated the way you whittled interview techniques down into bullet points, making it easy to follow your suggestions on interviewing. It may be good for me to do some interviewing myself some day, which is something I hadn’t really considered before I started following your blog. I hope you’re able to conduct many more interviews in the months and years to come! :o)

    • I’m glad you liked the post and it’s got you thinking about doing interviews yourself some day. Making that initial call or meeting someone for the first time can be nerve wracking but all the interviews I’ve done have ended up being really enjoyable, plus I got to talk to some very interesting people!

  2. I agree Kate – this series has been really helpful. My first ever interview was a disaster, not because I didn’t get on well with the interviewee, but because I had no idea of the angle for the article. I spent three hours with the chap, had a great tour of a project he was starting up (it was still at grass roots level) and then struggled to put it into any useable format. I loved what they were trying to acheive, but at the end of the day – no hook. And ultimately no article. Luckily he was a friend of the family, but I felt I’d let him and myself down.

    It was a big learning curve, and I managed to get away with doing my entire ‘article writing’ module without interviewing a soul.

    So thanks again – a great post.

    • Thanks Raewyn. Sometimes it’s the best way to learn on the job so-to-speak but it’s not always easy. That was some feat getting away with not interviewing anyone on your article writing module! I guess nowadays there’s so much information (good and bad) available online that, depending on what you’re writing, you don’t always need to interview anyone.

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