How to Interview People

tina fey sarah palin

Hey there. It’s been a minute. Long time no see. How’ve you been? You’ve grown. I hear you’re vegan now. I’m sorry, I meant pescetarian.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I need to tell you about interviews. If you’re reading this, you are probably a writer, or have some interest in the literary community. I’ll take a risk, say you’re a writer, and get to what I want to talk about — interviews.

I’ve gotten pretty good at interviewing people, or at least better than when I started. I have three years of experience backing me up, and with that, I can tell you how to not screw up. Mostly.

You never know why you may need to interview someone. You may become a journalist and need to interview everyone from witnesses of crime to pop stars to local business owners. You may need to ask a potential employer questions about the position you’re desperate for. You may need to interrogate your boyfriend of what he really did the weekend you were out of town. Practice makes perfect, so you might as well start now.

Let’s begin with a scenario I go through nearly every month – your editor at Online Music Magazine gives you a set of assignments, including an interview Arm Sweat, frontwoman of the hot new band Nose Grease. You’ve never heard of these people. They could be bridge trolls for all you know, but as dictated to you in an email you read while watching House Hunters with your mom, it is your job to ask them questions. The preparation goes like this:

1. Do your research.
I would expand on this, but I need to get to number two on the list, which is

I cannot stress this enough. Research solves all problems. It’s basic. It should be the first thing a person does before an interview. Don’t know how to spell someone’s name? Research. Not sure when the interview subject released an album/book/art thing people like? RESEARCH! What should you search for?

A) The subject, in this case, Nose Grease, probably has either a website or social media profile with a website, thus a short biography. What’s their style of music? Where are they from? Do they fight for animal rights? Do they make soup out of gunpowder? Find out as much about them as possible.

B) Research their art. Maybe not all of it, but the main pieces of work they’ve done. Nose Grease has about six albums you can stream through Spotify, and some you can download off of bandcamp. Listen to all of them if you’re ambitious or if you like their music, but if you have about fifty other things to do that week, one or two will suffice. Their latest album is a must though, because you’re a part of their press cycle, and if they’re doing a press cycle it’s because they’re releasing new material or going on tour.

C) Read past interviews they’ve done. This helps you find out more about them, and helps you figure out what and what not to ask them. The last thing you want is to ask them a question they’ve answered ten times a day for the past five years. I guarantee you that Arm Sweat has been asked no less than one hundred times how she and her bandmates came up with the name Nose Grease. She really doesn’t want to explain it again.

3. Write the questions beforehand.
Again, this seems obvious, but cultivating a good set of questions can be hard, especially because Arm Sweat has given dozens upon dozens of interviews in the past. Fear not, though. Nose Grease are releasing/have already released a new album, so there’s a ton of new material to ask questions about. If you notice something about a piece of work they’ve done, ask them about it. Your research should be able to guide you in this task of writing questions. Try to ask them what they haven’t heard or won’t expect. There’s nothing wrong with making it fun either, as long as it’s in line with your publication’s general style or etiquette.

4. Know your limits.
This is meant literally and figuratively. Literally, know your word limit. If you’ve cultivated questions for a 2,000-word profile but your editor says you only have a 600-word limit, you need to rethink some choices.

The other limits have to do with respect. Arm Sweat’s mom just died a week ago. Don’t immediately launch into how it’s affecting her and how it will affect her art. How do you think she feels? Her mom died. Hypothetically, of course. Also, don’t bring up old drama. It’s old. It’s been talked about. No one cares anymore. Arm Sweat has already said why she called out the band Friend Zone on their misogynist behavior. That dead horse is pulp by now. Keep the interview relevant.

5. Contact your subject.
Again, obvious. There are different ways to do this. If you have been assigned this interview by an editor, chances are they’ll CC you on an email to whoever does PR for Nose Grease. Arm Sweat will probably be available, but she might not be. Those are the breaks.

Sometimes an editor doesn’t provide a contact, and you have to be more creative. Does Nose Grease list who their management is on their site? Find out and email their management, asking for an interview on behalf of Online Music Magazine. Gather whatever contact information you can.

Sometimes, even that isn’t enough, and you become psychotically desperate. Contacting the group directly could work (though you should always try their management first). In cases like these, you have to get creative. How creative? Again, it really depends on the situation, so you’ll have to figure that out on your own.

6. Keep it conversational.
You’ve set up a time for a phone interview with Arm Sweat. Don’t try to “interview” her as much as have a conversation with her. It makes the biggest difference. Asking from a set list of questions isn’t a bad idea, especially if you feel you absolutely have to hit all of those points, but don’t be afraid to go wherever the conversation leads. Also, don’t be afraid to inquire further about something you don’t understand, because chances are your readers won’t understand either.

No matter what, interviews are always slightly awkward. There’s always that one moment of odd silence, your interview subject may be on the quiet side of things, or there’s a weird exchange where Arm Sweat goes off on a tangent about guitar strings and you follow with, “That’s cool. Why do you have a pig’s heart on your album cover?” It happens, but it gets less awkward as you go on. Plus, there’s never a shortage of people to interview. Everyone’s done something somewhere.