The New Year is a great time to set new intentions and and try new things, so why not dust off that writing project you’ve had on the back burner or in the back of your mind for ages, and start to make some progress?
Whether you plan to tackle a memoir, family history, biography, or even a short form personal essay, there is a high chance you will need to corroborate some facts with someone else, or even glean a large part of your narrative from them.
Perhaps you want to speak with a grandparent or Great Uncle George about some events in your family history? Or maybe discuss some childhood events with a sibling? If you are writing a piece of non-fiction, your whole story might be based around a chat (or several chats) with an interviewee.
In some cases you might only have one chance to gather the information you are looking for, so it’s important you are well prepared before any interview. To help, I’ve come up with some top tips to ensure your interview goes smoothly, and you get the best out of it.
Tip 1 – Preparation and Conversation Starters
Once a person has agreed to be interviewed by you, preparation is the key. The first thing to think about is the angle and purpose of your interview. Do you want to discuss a person’s life or events in general terms, or drill down to a particular time period or specific event? Once you have established this, it’s time to do your research. Gather all the information you have about the person you are going to interview, and the events and themes you want to talk to them about. Use existing written information, search online, and ask others what they know. Then come up with a list of open-ended questions that require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. This will spark conversation. It is a good idea to have some follow up questions about each topic you want to cover ready too.
Tip 2 – Recording the interview
It is critical to put some thought into how you are going to record the interview. I’m a speedy typist, so type notes into a Word document during my interviews. However most people probably can’t type that fast, so it’s critical to have other ways to record what is being said. I recommend recording the interview on a Dictaphone, or using an audio or video recorder on a Smartphone. Then you can listen back later, write down the key points you want to use, and transcribe any quotes (which you must capture verbatim). It is worth practising with your equipment before the interview so you are familiar with it, and also check regularly during the interview to ensure it is working properly. I recommend taking written notes on paper during the interview as well, just in case the technology fails.
Tip 3 – The Interview
Here is a list of tips that will ensure your interview runs smoothly:
Confirm the date and time with your interviewee beforehand. It reminds them, and gives them time to prepare as well. In some cases, you may want to send them your list of questions beforehand.
Try to create a warm, welcoming interview environment. Arrange to meet somewhere you will both feel comfortable. That could be at the interviewee’s home, or even a local café (if you are not talking about a contentious subject!)
If you are interviewing very elderly people, it can be a good idea to have someone else to sit in on the interview, as they can also help to keep the subject on track.
Don’t ask questions that prompt a YES or NO answer! If you have planned well you should have a list of good open-ended questions ready to ask.
One of the great joys of an interview is when the conversation detours into unexpected but amazing territory. Be prepared to ask questions on the fly as the conversation progresses. Your question list is helpful, but don’t be afraid to veer off it at any time. You can always come back to it later.
Show genuine interest and be sincere throughout the interview. Your interviewee has agreed to give up their time to speak with you. Honour this.
Listen carefully, and give the person plenty of opportunity to talk. This is a key quality of a good interviewer.
If you didn’t hear something the interviewee said, or understand their meaning, don’t assume – ask them to clarify. Don’t write something down if you’re not sure.
Be confident and friendly. This will make your interviewee more relaxed and at ease.
Tip 4 – Writing up the interview
Listen back to your tape or recording, and review your written notes. You don’t have to use all the material you’ve captured in your writing just for the sake of it. Choose only the information you’ve gathered which is relevant and will move your story forward. However it is still a good idea to archive any information you don’t use, as it may be useful for another project.
Tip 5 – Proofing the story to the interview subject
It is critical to show your interview subject the part of your story that relates to them. Gaining their approval saves problems later, and enables them to correct any factual errors for you. They might also have second thoughts about including some sensitive material once they see it written down, so it gives them the opportunity to have it removed.
Tip 6 – Have fun and enjoy the process
An interview can be a positive and fun experience for both the interviewer and the interviewee. The interviewer has the privilege of learning about someone else’s life, or listening to their perspective on life’s events, while the interviewee has the opportunity to share their story, views, or wisdom.
I hope you have found these tips helpful, and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org