9 quick-fire tips to draw the best stories out of anyone

Have you ever needed to interview someone?

Maybe for work.

Or a school project.

Maybe you’re writing an article, or a book of your own, or a killer post for your blog.

Maybe you just want to record a family member’s stories for posterity, which is a great project to do over the holiday season.

Why do I ask?

It’s because I regularly get e-mails from folks who tell me they need to interview someone, but they’re stumped as to how to proceed.

Often they’ve got a good idea of where they’re going, but they just need some encouragement as to how to make their interview the best it can be.

How do I know what I’m talking about?

Well, here’s a little background in case you’re new to me or what I’ve done.

I’ve been a professional writer now for 14 years, the first 5 of which were spent in a newsroom. It’s hard to estimate, but I’ve probably interviewed between 2,000 and 2,500 people.

I’ve interviewed an eclectic mix of people including governors and mine owners, spelling bee winners and superintendents, county commissioners, beauty contestant finalists, judges, mayors, salmon-rights activists, prison inmates, and one of the original, still-living members of Grand Funk Railroad.

Included in that number are a few famous folks, including actor Neil McDonough and author Francis Chan.

I’ve interviewed some highly difficult-to-classify folks, such as the Pilgrims, a 17-member backwoods bluegrass singing family who lived high in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska. Their strange, and eventually alarming story would be turned into a bestselling book that’s just now out, PILGRIM’S WILDERNESS by journalist Tom Kizzia.

I’ve done some hard interviews, including migrant workers who didn’t speak a word of English. Through an interpreter we discussed acceptable living conditions and a state shutdown of a farm where they worked.

I’ve been physically threatened a few times. Once, during the heat of a nasty strike, I ventured down to the picket lines to interview school bus drivers who’d walked off the line in favor of a better contract. That morning they were highly angry about an editorial my publisher had written earlier that sided against them and with the school district. A few of the drivers threatened to knock my head in if I didn’t leave immediately. I calmed them down and eventually got my story.

And then, of course, I’ve interviewed WWII veterans—which has been perhaps the most rewarding work I’ve done in my career.

No matter who you need to interview, the following 9 tips will help.

1. Be purposeful, forthright, and quiet.

Prepare for your interview as much as possible in advance. It’s helpful to have a list of questions in your notebook ahead of time, but sometimes that’s not possible. Either way, just go into your interview confident and humble.

To begin an interview, explain your purpose, turn on your recorder, get him or her talking, and go silent. Resist the urge to be a trial attorney and pepper him with questions. Your job is mainly to listen.

2. Begin wherever he’s comfortable.

Depending on your theme, you may want to begin at the very beginning, like, “Tell me about your childhood— where you grew up and what you were like as a boy?”

If your interview is about a particular subject or based around a theme, begin with the most logical place to start, wherever that is.

If he’s a vet, you may want to begin with the war. “Let’s start with Pearl Harbor, the day everything changed for America. Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed?” Or start with enlisting. “Tell me about how you enlisted and what motivated you to do so?”

3. Progress sequentially.

Once he’s warmed up and talking, have him walk sequentially through his experience, as much as he’s able.

4. Use broad-based, straightforward, open-ended questions.

The ultra-simple question, “What happened after that?” is often best.

5. Probe gently.

You may get the sense that who you’re interviewing isn’t telling you the whole story, particularly if the subject matter is highly emotional or difficult to revisit. Allow your interviewee to stop or take a breather if you don’t think it’s wisest to continue.

If you feel he simply needs more encouragement to continue, the ultra-simple line, “Tell me more,” can be highly effective.

Note: this can also work when you pick up your child from school and you ask, “How was your day?”

6. Schedule one-to-two hour chunks of time to work.

If your interview is going to be a long one, such as recording a grandparent’s life story, the inclination is often to set a whole day aside and just go for it. But that seldom works well as you get into the material.

It can be tough work to recall events, particularly if they’re highly emotional or difficult to revisit, and you will find your interviewee’s concentration waning before long.

I’ve interviewed people for 8-10 hours straight for 5 to 7 days in a row when a necessity. But it usually works better to schedule interviews in one-to-two hour blocks.

Think: short, intense. Rather than: long, drawn-out.

7. End with purpose again.

End with a question that gets to the heart of the matter and the purpose of your task. If you’re interviewing a vet or a grandparent, something like, “What sort of advice would you have for today’s generations?”

8. Aim for a unique response.

If you’re interviewing a newsmaker or someone who gets interviewed a lot, this simple question can be highly effective in getting a compelling quote or story: “What’s one question nobody’s ever asked you before, and how would you answer?”

9. Keep your recorder on.

Once the interview is over, keep your tape recorder running but don’t draw attention to it.

This is often when people relax the most and say highly interesting things.

Question: have you ever interviewed anyone? What was it like? If you could interview anybody, who would it be and why?

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