The late NBC political bureau chief Tim Russert, who passed away last week, was famous for the behind-the-scenes preparation he put into interviews on his weekly show, “Meet the Press.” He never interviewed politicians without knowing every stance they’d taken, every vote they’d cast or every statement they’d made on the record. Even America’s most celebrated interviewer, Barbara Walters, doesn’t wing it. After poring through research on her subject, she jots her questions down on index cards, and shuffles and reshuffles until she finds the right order.
Maybe your next interview isn’t with a politician or a celebrity, but preparation is still important because it gives you the credibility you need to connect with whomever you interview. Sure, you’ll run into some sound-bite-friendly folks who are natural talkers and will give you great quotes no matter what you ask. But it’s a better bet that you’ll have to deal with awkward silences, canned responses, hidden agendas and occasional egos—so you must be ready. Read on for five tried-and-true steps we use to prepare for an interview.
1. Do your homework. Gather as much background as possible beforehand. Skimming a press release or a company’s Web site is a start, but it’s not enough. If you’re doing a profile, use Google or another search engine to locate past articles about your subject. Of course, you shouldn’t believe everything that has been written, but this will help you see what’s out there so you can find a fresh angle. Get additional insight by talking to people who are close to the person or business you’re profiling. If a topic, rather than a person, is the star of your story, research as many related news stories, journals and books on the issue as possible. There’s nothing more embarrassing than interviewing experts on a certain subject and having no clue what they’re saying!
2. Look for connections. Once you’ve done your research, look through your background info for revealing quotes, unusual information, timelines or turning points, and consider how it fits into the story you hope to tell. Use what you find to formulate your questions. Do a little free writing, jotting down every unanswered question that comes to mind. At this stage, nothing is too silly or insignificant. After you’ve exhausted your list, step away from it for a few hours.
3. Refine your focus. Return to your list with a ruthless eye, throwing out any questions that are repetitive or no-brainers. You won’t get good quotes by asking someone to rehash what they’ve said a thousand times to other media outlets. Stay away from anything that can be answered with a “yes” or “no,” keeping your questions broad enough to require explanation. Unless you’re doing a lighthearted Q&A, make sure that everything you ask could lead you to a place of depth. And banish any leading questions that could evoke a stilted response. Try to hone your list down to 10 substantial questions—anything more is overwhelming!
4. Set your strategy. In the beginning, the key is to make your subject feel comfortable, so pay attention to the order in which you arrange your questions. Unless you have only five minutes with your interviewee, never kick off an interview with the toughest question. Start with something the person can easily answer—a question about his or her hometown, occupation or pet project, for instance—and gradually increase the complexity as the interview progresses. Keep related questions together, breaking them down under headings if that helps. Save the most difficult questions for the middle of the interview, but don’t dwell there too long. Know when to lighten up.
5. Observe. Once you step inside your interviewee’s environment, whether that’s his or her home, office or favorite coffee shop, look around—you can learn a lot about people by their surroundings. Take time to notice what’s on the walls or in the bookshelves. You might see something that will spark a question, solve a puzzle or help you understand your subject better. If your interviewee is reluctant to talk, put your notebook away and ask if you can follow him or her around for an hour. Seeing people in their element and watching them interact with others will reveal more about them than you could ever learn through a Q&A session.
*Quick tip: Can you ever prepare too much for an interview? Yes—if your interview is so scripted that you sound like a telemarketer, or if you don’t listen to what your interviewee is saying long enough to pick up on tidbits that require follow-up questions. Sure, being prepared will keep you from getting off track, but always remember: The best moments in an interview are the spontaneous ones.