As writers, we will need to interview people when we write. Here are nine things that can go wrong when you conduct an interview.
Interviewing is an integral part of journalism, and sometimes things don’t always go as planned. I call it the Murphy’s Law of Journalism. Here’s a look at some of what can go South during interviews and just what you can do about it…
9 Things That Can (& Will) Go Wrong When You Conduct An Interview
The Murphy’s Law Of Interviewing
- Scheduling problems. Interviewees, especially those in the world of business or entertainment, are busy and have very little time to waste. Time is precious, so find a time that works for both of you – and be willing to bend around theirs to get the job done. How much information can you cram into a ten or twenty minute interview? Often, more than enough. Once you’ve set a time, the absolutely most fatal mistake you can make is to miss it without explanation. Don’t.
- The Wrong Questions. I always prepare interview questions beforehand and advise students to do the same. I also tell them to treat the questions as preparation – with proper background research – and a guideline. You can’t script a conversation, and you’re never going to get the best results from the interview if you stick to the script. Treat interviews like a conversation and you’ll never have to be nervous about it. You’re just talking. If it veers off-topic, that’s okay: You can subtly direct the conversation back to what you
need to know without disrupting the conversations natural flow.
- Signal Issues. Issues with connectivity and signal are a bitch when you’ve got an important interview scheduled. Before conducting an interview via phone, make sure you’ve got sufficient signal to do so – if not, you might be forced to do the interview where reception is better.
- Equipment Malfunctions. In the old days, recorders could run out of tape. Now, things are a little different. If you’re running a recorder, make at least three test calls to ensure it’s working as it should; make sure you can hear yourself and the other person clearly, and check where these files are being saved. There’s nothing worse than relying on a call recorder for an interview and finding out – twenty minutes and questions later – that nothing recorded.
- Volume. I’ve transcribed thousands of interviews for both myself and other journalists, and a common issue is the playback volume:
Sometimes an interviewee just tends to speak softly, other times it was due to the recording environment. Short of investing in a separate microphone (which is not necessarily a bad idea), you can use simple audio editing software like Audacity to increase the volume (or decrease the noise) of recorded interviews.
- The Great…Mondegreen? Mondegreens, if you don’t know, are misheard lyrics. Right now, I’m not sure if there’s a word for misheard names or responses, but they’re going to happen a hell of a lot. When they do, politely ask the interviewee to repeat what they just said or start from the top. If it was a recording and you only notice it afterwards, a call or e-mail asking them to clarify is fine.
- Backing Up. Always back-up what you’re working on, and always store it for the long-term afterwards: Consider cloud storage, or hard copy backed up every six months or so. There are many reasons you might need to refer back, and disputed quotes are just one of them. Writing full-time means you’re running a business, and I advise people to treat their back-ups just like they would any other business records: Safe, long-term storage.
- Memory Matters. What the hell does memory have to do with interviewing? Well, I’d say everything: Memorising interview questions cuts down on having to apologetically leaf through pages of notes. Knowing some facts and notes before an interview
can’t hurt either. Speaking of notes…
- Pre-Interview Notes. While memory is great to rely on, a couple pages of notes are a great help. Write up a background research sheet along with your outline of questions: On it, write important facts that you’ll need to remember about the interviewee’s life and the topic you’re talking about. It’s your interview cheat sheet.
About the Author: Alex J. Coyne is a freelance journalist, author and language practitioner. He has written for a diverse range of international publications, blogs and clients including People Magazine, Funds for Writers, The Dollar Stretcher, The Investor, CollegeHumor and Great Bridge Links, among others.
Find more information about his writing and courses aimed at journalists at Alex J Coyne
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