When I was 18, I knew for a fact that the scariest thing in the world was talking to strangers. It made me so nervous I would literally write out entire conversations and memorize them. This is not an exaggeration. I can’t explain it, which makes it even harder to describewhy I make interviewing strangers such a huge part of my current life. The thing is, it’s still not easy. It still scares me (sometimes).
So every time I get ready to interview, I think of Jim Sheeler.
Mr. Sheeler was one of my reporting professors at CU-Boulder. He didn’t look like a reporter. Honestly, he looked like my friend’s dad, who was an accountant. He won a Pulitzer for Feature Writing…for crafting obituaries. Oh, yes. That is a thing you can win a Pulitzer for, and from what I read of his work, he deserved it. Years of forcing myself to interview people had done almost nothing for my confidence or abilities, and then Mr. Sheeler assigned us all real-life obits to write. Even thinking about it right now, seven years later, makes me nervous! I can still see the man I interviewed and feel my nerves practically jumping out of my fingers(bless that guy for letting a young, naive journalism student ask him about his late father).
That single experience changed how I looked at reporting. It wasn’t about me being comfortable – it was about the other person feeling at ease. It’s a conversation, not an interrogation. No one cared if I had a list of twenty questions. What mattered was having a question that moved quickly to the heart of the story.
One thing I love about our interviews for Beyond the Trope is being able to prepare. You can’t really prepare yourself for the stories you hear about people who’ve passed on. You can, however, read up on authors and people in the nerd world. You can find out who else they’ve talked to, and just a few minutes on their Twitter feed can tell you what kind of jokes they’ll laugh at.
Here’re my 5 quick steps to get a great interview*:
- Do your research. Find out if they have any weird hobbies or if they are addicted to something fun. Start making a list of questions about things you know they already like.
- Get creative. Remember your listeners also have access to the Internet. If the person you’re going to interview talks about things on their website, why would you want to get repetitive? Try to come up with questions and topics that no one else has talked about before.
- Have them try to teach you something. Humans love it when they can share their passion with other people, and learning something new won’t hurt you, either.
- Breathe. Chill. Don’t imagine anyone in their underwear.
- Be honest. Don’t feel bad about saying, “I have no idea what that is.” Don’t spew your crazy worldviews and start ranting, but don’t feel like you have to withhold your opinion, either. The point is an interesting interview, right?
Michelle loves talking to people who get her jokes, will let her talk for hours about her dog, or offer her pizza. Or all three. Preferably all three.
*Obviously, this is a little skewed to audio interviews. If you’re doing a regular print (or digital text) interview, the basic concept stays the same. Simply remember to put a theme together for your questions. That makes it easy for later, when you have to squish everything into something resembling coherency.