How to Impress the People You Interview (and Be Professional)

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Today’s guest post is from author Christina Katz. Her most recent book is The Writer’s Workout.


Not too long ago I received a formal interview request, which was well executed, so I said I would make time for the interview. Once we got on the phone, the interviewer said, “Okay, go ahead.”

I thought, “Oh no.”

I probably should have bailed, but I am a writing coach, so I suggested that she ask me some questions and I would answer them for her. I hoped she was actually taking notes and planning to give me credit for my words and ideas—otherwise known as an interview—but I did not feel a whole lot of confidence in the process.

More than anything, what I was thinking was, “I took time out of a busy day for this.” But I did not say that, because no matter what, it’s always an honor to be asked for an interview.

As a journalist who eventually became an expert, who still conducts interviews and teaches aspiring journalists, I continually move back and forth between the two sides of the interviewer vs. expert equation.

I don’t view either role—expert or interviewer—as superior to the other, but I will say this: I had to earn the role of expert whereas the role of journalist was one I could learn by doing.

Lately, when I am approached for an interview, I find myself wishing journalists would spend more energy on formality and operate with more professionalism. We are living in the age of lazy journalism, where experts receive a steady barrage of requests, and are bound to become weary from time request overload.

So, listen up, journalists—and yes, I mean you, blogger, you, aspiring novelist, and all of the rest of you, writers. Chances are very good that you will eventually interview someone about something. And you should take the time to get it right.

Whether or not you enjoy interviewing is less important than doing it well. Ultimately how well you prepare and manage the interview will dictate the ultimate success (or failure) of your article or interview. Here are five tips for conducting a successful interview:

1. Think of yourself as a professional thief. You steal people’s time. You steal people’s expertise. You are asking a source you approach to give you their words so you can create something. If you can be thoughtful and prepared enough for the interview that the source thanks you afterward for stealing away their time, then you have done a good job.

2. Approach experts with professionalism every step of the way. Do not approach experts publicly. Do not approach experts using social media (unless you are already connected in real life). Do not act presumptuously. Do not ask for “coffee” or “to pick her brain.” Find your target source’s website and check for guidelines to approaching. Find the correct e-mail and identify your request as an interview request in the subject line. Example: “Interview Request for Parents Magazine” from [insert your name here]”

3. Practice on your friends. If you are nervous about interviewing, but you need to do it anyway, start by interviewing your friends, but approach them as formally as you would a mega-celebrity. Practice your skills until you feel comfortable using the same skills with people you don’t already know. Or begin with experts lower on the celebrity totem pole and work your way up.

4. Get your interview request right. Identify yourself as a professional writer. Identify the publication you are writing for or hoping to write for. Identify how much time you are asking for. Identify how prepared you are to conduct a quick and quality interview by refering to the expert’s body of work. Identify how you wish to conduct the interview. Thank the source ahead of time for taking the time to read your request. Include everything the source needs to make a decision in one concise e-mail request.

5. Operate with genuine appreciation of your source. Appreciate the acceptance of an interview request. Say thank you over and over throughout the interaction. Appreciate the time your source is taking away from their day. Appreciate every moment of the process. You don’t have to fawn over the person or put them on a pedestal. But you want your interviewee to remember that you were respectful and gracious.

Many writers experience anxiety about interviewing experts. But then again, many writers experience anxiety about just about everything.

Just remember that managing your anxiety is your job. Take steps to calm your concerns ahead of time, or put them aside in the short run so you can conduct a solid interview.

When the shoe is on the other foot and you are the expert, here’s what you need to keep in mind:

1. Ask questions yourself. You were the interviewer once, and you likely will be again. At the very least, hopefully, you are still a person who enjoys asking questions as much as answering them. Ask the journalist how her day is going, if she enjoys interviewing, or what the weather is like in Kansas today.

2. Don’t lose your cool. It’s up to you to inspire positive results in any journalistic work you participate in. If you lose your focus just because the interviewer is blowing it, the article is even more likely to stink. Make as positive an impact on the outcome as you can.

3. Expect respect and give it back. If you are asked for your opinion then that’s respect. It’s always an honor to be asked for your opinion, no matter how the interview goes. So be respectful of the folks in the interview trenches.

4. Enjoy the process. An interview is another opportunity to expand on your ideas and come up with something fresh you may not have come up with before, especially if you’re asked intelligent questions. If the conversation goes beyond the usual sound bites, than you owe your interviewer some appreciation.

5. Improve the outcome next time. Making time to be interviewed is an important part of your ongoing platform development. You can influence the outcome for the best by preparing a solid media kit including a list of suggested questions, sending out press releases, and stating your interview policies on your site.

I am a journalist who became an interview source, who will likely be right back to interviewing tomorrow. But I’m grateful to hop back into the interviewing trenches over and over. To research a source. To ask intelligent questions. To winnow my questions down to just the best few. To make my questions so thoughtful that the source says, “Oh, that’s a good question.”

I’m an expert, but I’ll be the interviewer again, because formal interviews with experts yield the freshest ideas. And the most up-to-date information is always the best source material for any type of writing that’s worth reading.

What tips do you have to share from your interview experience? Any do’s and don’ts you’ve learned the hard way?

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Christina Katz teaches writers to prosper by building solid, salable, life-long career skills that work even in a rapidly evolving publishing marketplace. She works with writers via classes, training groups, and writing challenges, using the most effective and reliable technologies available. She is the author of books and workbooks that help writers take their skills to the next level and grow their writing careers. Her latest book is Permission Granted, 45 Reasons to Micro-Publish, which describes the benefits of micro-publishing for any level writer. She also recently launched Write for Regional Parenting Publications For Fun & Profit: A Step-By-Step Guide For Beginners. Her mission is to teach writers expertise and attitudes that will benefit them for the rest of their professional careers.
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34 Comments

    • Thanks, Les. I agree. But also, if necessary, put the question in the context of your target readers, so the source can speak directly to them rather than to a general audience.

  1. Great topic that most writers don’t give a lot of consideration. When I interview someone for my book, I go in with a list of about 30 questions. Some questions are the same for everyone I interview, some are tailored to that person. All are open-ended: no questions that can be answered with a short “yes” or “no”. I try to record everything, although that doesn’t always happen. Once they feel comfortable talking, I let them take the lead, and they do. They often go in directions that I couldn’t have anticipated, and many follow up with emails or call that begin, “you know, I can’t believe I forgot to tell you…”
    Putting the subject at ease is key. I let them pick the location for the interview (sometimes that is important to the story they’re telling me). Someone told me the reason I get such great stories is that I’m not threatening, and that’s true: I’m not there to diagnose them or prescribe anything or pass judgement. I’m just there to listen.
    I haven’t spent much time on the other side, Christina, at least not yet. ;) But I hope I can be as gracious as you!

    • Thanks for sharing, Viki. Just want to make sure everyone realizes that 30 questions is much more than typical. And that most media interviews are the opposite: short and focused. And need to be that way unless the source has agreed to a longer, more in-depth interview.

  2. I feel your pain. I had a similar experience at a local TV station. They’re small, and the hosts for the “talk show” are volunteers from the community. But they’ve been doing the show for a long time, so I expected a little more. Plus I’d sent them an entire media package a few weeks in advance that included a long list of questions on several topics relative to my background and book. The first time the hosts saw the questions was when they walked onto the set about 30 minutes before air time.

    • Ah, yes. TV is kind of a different animal. I’d say never expect a TV host to know a thing about you. My students who appear on TV often write a suggested script and bring it with them and say the hosts always appreciate this. Therefore, on TV, instead of expecting a back-and-forth, expect that it is entirely up to you to create the illusion of back-and-forth. I don’t really think we can expect more from busy TV folks than that.

  3. Since I conduct interviews every day, I understand the importance of sharing a great interview. And I do say “sharing” – the process is very much a relationship-building moment, a give and take of facts and anecdotes from both sides, and the beginning of what can be a long-term bond. Your article presents incredibly sage information that I will share with my student staff. Very well put Christina!

    I always ask my interview subjects what new projects they are working on. From this, dozens of questions may arise that take the article in a new direction I had not planned or anticipated.

    My greatest tip for successful interviewing: keep the process fluid. Begin with a basic outline, but learn to quickly readjust when new facts present themselves.

  4. I enjoyed that you wrote from both perspectives. I think there’s often anxiety on both sides which is minimized by being prepared. For the interviewee- what key messages do you want to be sure the interviewer gets? It sometimes helps to have them written down so you can go back to them if conversations go off on a tangent. Not easy being on either side, so respect is key :-)

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  6. Thanks for the tips Christina! I really do consider you my writing coach, and I’m often referring to all three of your books which are the only ones stacked on my nightstand (On my e-shelf is “Author Mama” too) I’ve interviewed many times now, and it still causes me a bit of anxiety (shy writer for sure ;-) so I always feel I can improve this skill.

    • Thanks, Arlice. I appreciate your support. :) We are all always improving all of our skills. I’d hate to meet anyone who isn’t!

  7. I love this post Christina! Lots of good information for us as we interview. I love your comment on “managing your anxiety is your job.” As I’ve been given new writing opportunities, (one with a national publication) I find I have more anxiety to do it perfectly. But I refuse to let my anxiety paralyze me and am learning how to manage it. Thank you for all your great suggestions!
    Gayla

  8. These are really great tips! I especially like that you gave advice from both sides of the interviewing fence. While this article is great for journalists and experts, I think it also works just as well for hiring managers and job seekers. The interview process for finding a position can be filled with just as much anxiety (or more!) than interviewing a source for a story. Staying respectful and on message is just as important for a job seeker taking questions in a video interview for a great job.

  9. Great post and thanks for all of the wonderful tips. I also appreciate both sides of the coin–it keeps those of us being interviewed on our toes as well.

    Another use for these tips is if you are in a position where you are interviewing for a job or in a position to hire others. This is great advice for any industry.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for the reminder of both sides of the coin. I’ve had both experiences and they’ve been positive for the most part. I appreciate a journalist who’s taken the time to familiarize herself with my book (which was the basis of the interview). I’ve had one who read the whole book before the interview (rare), one who skimmed through it (helpful), and one who did little or no prep (it showed in the questions). Despite the varying degrees of interest, all proved very helpful in getting the word out.

  10. Great tips. I’ve started doing interviews and very much learning the ropes. I enjoy it. It’s a great way to begin a relationship and sow some seeds. You also pick up so many ideas.

    All in all, very good way to spend your time

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

  11. Hi Christina – Great post on an important (and not often talked about) topic. As many people have already said, I LOVE that you address the topic from both the interviewer and the interviewee angles.

    I myself do video interviews either via Skype or in person and I find that so much of the story comes in at the editing phase. I’ve heard horror stories about people giving quotes on camera only to have their words twisted to fit the message that the interviewer wanted. Because of that as interviewer, I’ve determined to use editing just to enhance what the interviewee says, not morph it into something else. For me, most of the editing comes from necessity… The interviews have to fit within a 15min time period.

    I was wondering about your thoughts on editing interviews. How did you approach editing decisions when you conducted interviews in the past? (After all, sometimes you have word count limits or time limits and certain pieces of the interview have to be dropped.)

    • Hi Gabriela,
      Interviews are most often not used in their entirety. Often from a full page of notes, only one or two lines will be used. But when the interview features the source, it’s best to record the interview so that nothing is lost. When editing either kind of interview, edits should only happen for clarity and correctness. People don’t always speak the same way we write. So it’s often the case that quotes need to be tweaked for clarity. So long as the essence or thrust is not lost, this is fine. We should ask Jane if she has anything to add here. Jane?

  12. Christina, you offer some sound advice. A few weeks ago I interviewed a good friend of mine but I treated him as I would a celebrity. I made contact ahead of time. I scheduled the interview for a time I knew would be convenient for him. I sent a few questions ahead of time to help him know what the interview was about. During our interview, I took notes and asked him to restate some things so I’d quote him accurately.

    I also allowed the interview to be conversational. The best question, the one that offered the most insight for me, was asked by my friend. It was on topic and extremely helpful for the article I was working on.

  13. Great information from @thewritermama! I’m a magazine journalist by trade and now, as a published author, also get interviewed as an expert. Super advice all around!

  14. Thank you for a great post, Christina. I’ve had a couple interview experiences that taught me something about recording…do it. The first person was a contemporary Christian music artist so I was a bit nervous. But he made me so comfortable and we just enjoyed the conversation so that I found myself not taking notes. That required me to stop, focus, and ask him to repeat a few things…embarrassing. The other was a phone interview with a published author. I promised her 15 minutes but she talked so fast I couldn’t keep up. I, again, had to ask her to repeat which made the interview go overtime. Again…embarrassing. Now, I just need to learn to use that fancy recording device sitting in the drawer.

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