Few things make a writer’s life harder than a difficult interview subject. My most dreaded interviewee is the monosyllabic type.
Me: So, you’ve always been passionate about art?
How do you, the writer, draw this person out so you can include great quotes in your story? Here are some interview tactics I’ve found useful.
First of all, my question about art is too broad for my monosyllabic interview subject. How can she possibly say everything she feels about her art or art in general during one interview? Safer to stay quiet and wait for a question she can answer. To elicit a quotable answer to such a question, get specific.
Try one of these:
- When did you first begin drawing/painting/making felt reindeer antlers?
- Which artists inspire you and why?
- Can you tell me about your process in creating felt reindeer antlers from start to finish?
- What is your favorite part of the process and why?
- Does making art run in your family?
Put the Tongue-Tied at Ease
Second, if you write for a local/regional publication, or for, say, a college website, your interview subject may not be used to talking to the press. You may be interviewing a local contractor, a bakery owner, or a biology professor. Giving A+ interviews isn’t usually in their job description. Help them out by being extra friendly and asking questions that draw out their expertise.
I once talked to a talented horticulturist who could not, for the life of him, give me advice on how to revive dying plants—until I lowered the stakes and made him feel more comfortable by saying: “Can I ask you a question about a plant problem I’m having? I have a brown thumb and a dying spider plant. I just can’t get the thing to perk up. What would you do?” I could have written a complete guide to houseplants based on his answer. Sometimes playing dumb helps.
Put your interviewee at ease like this:
- I’ve never heard of [cool thing interview subject does] before. Can you tell me how you first learned about it?
- I just can’t get [related thing] to work. Would you mind giving me some advice?
- Wow, you have a real talent for [cool thing]. Were you always interested in [cool thing] or did you do another job/kind of artwork/type of research before this?
Help Them Brag
Third, your interviewee may be worried about tooting their own horn. But your job is to toot their horn. So how do you get them to say how awesome they are? You ask questions that lead to grand statements.
Try one of these:
- What is your vision for your business in the future?
- You must be an inspiration to the people around you. Do people look up to you? How do you handle that responsibility?
- What do you think makes a good leader?
- If you could tell others only one thing about your business/vision/work, what would it be?
- How do you hope other people will carry your vision forward in the future?
- Is there a quote or are there words of wisdom you live by? Why do they mean so much to you?
- Can you tell me about the awards you’ve won?
A final note: Try the “Anything Else to Add” question.
This is one of my favorite interview questions and I add it onto the end of every email or phone call interview. I simply type: “Anything else you’d like to add:”. The colon is important (via email). It shows them that this is the place where they can go off task. Here’s their chance to say whatever they want to say. And sometimes this question will lure a great quote out of a subject because they’re not trying to guess what you want to hear. They’re instead focused on saying the thing they’ve wanted to say but haven’t been asked about. Sometimes it’s as simple as “I have a collection of hi-res photos if you want to see them.” Um, yes, yes, I do, sir. I thank you and my editor thanks you.