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One of the ways I’ve supplemented my income and gotten some much-needed experience in college is by free-lance writing. Since my university does not offer formal journalism courses, I’ve had to learn a lot about writing nonfiction and journalism on my own and from experience. Writing is writing for the most part, but one of the things I struggled with the most when getting started was conducting interviews and making them effective for my piece.

I hated feeling like I was bothering people. I was always afraid that my questions would come off as stupid, but I had some really great mentors in my life. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’m conducting interviews with some seriously impressive people and they actually take me seriously. Today, I’ve like to share with you four of my biggest tips for conducting a great interview. No matter what you’re doing this interview for, these tips will make sure you come off as a serious person and produce a seriously good work.

Do your background research

No matter who you are interviewing, there is information out there about them. Look for a company website, their own personal social media, articles they’ve previously written, etcetera. If I’m going to interview Professor G about free speech, I’m not only going to do my research on Professor G’s background (education, tenure at university, field of study and specialty) but also read anything they’ve written or commented on about free speech. In the Internet age, this is pretty easy to do through keyword searches. Any longer form books or articles will be listed on the curriculum vitae of an education professional.  Doing your background research will allow you to come to the table knowing a bit about your subject so that they know you care about what they have to say and it will also prepare you for things to look out for, such as quips about their alma mater, biases based on previous works, etc.

If you’re interviewing people about a particular issue, such as a carbon charge program at your university, it will be necessary to do a lot of background research on that topic itself, including both easily digestible and heftier research. Don’t let that scare you away. It will make you a stronger writer in the long run.

Prepare unique questions

No one wants to answer the same questions a hundred times. What is the point of your piece if you’re just regurgitating questions and answers covered by a dozen other publications? Preparing and asking unique questions will not only show your skillset to your interviewee but will also allow you to create a piece that people want to read.  This will be a lot easier once you do your background research. You won’t need to ask questions that you already know the answer to, like what they teach or where they work or where they got their degree. You’ll save time for the bigger questions that really get to the heart of the issue. How do they feel about free speech issues on your campus? Is it true that they were the driving force behind changing the major requirements in engineering?  If you’re struggling to think of unique questions, try to imagine what you would want to know from someone in their shoes if you were extremely fascinated by the issue at hand. You finally have access to someone with the answers. Ask away.

Know your medium

Every interview is different and requires preparation, but I struggle far more for email interviews than phone or in person interviews. For me, I really want to hone my words just right in a written interview so that there won’t be any misunderstandings. In person or on the phone, I can clarify what I meant should any confusion arise. Knowing your medium of interview during the preparation process will help guide your planning. All three types of interviews are very legitimate at all levels. It just depends on the availability and comfort of both you and your interviewee. I’ve found that people in administrative positions prefer emails because of their busy schedules. I always try to meet in person with professors on campus since they usually have more flexibility in their schedules and truly enjoy interacting with students. Phone and Skype interviews take some getting used to, but make sure you still dress professionally and speak in a strong voice. As a woman, our voices are often too high or too fast on the phone. That’s something I’ve had to work really hard to modulate through the years. I’m still learning.

Circle back if necessary

Sometimes an interview inspires more questions and you have to circle back to your subject to ask them to clarify something they said, follow-up on a statement by someone else, or adjust to a new development. Circling back is not a sign of weakness. Don’t be afraid to go back and ask more questions, especially if it will help you make your piece more accurate. When I was working on a piece about my university’s carbon charge program, I asked the guy in charge of implementing it approximately twenty questions spread out over several emails. I was desperately trying to understand every aspect of the program so that my readers will too. Ultimately, I got to the root of the program and the issues with it. My article was a success because of it. Don’t let anyone ever make you feel bad for having to touch base again with an interviewee. It’s totally natural and makes you more of a professional.

Aryssa D
FFL Cabinet Member