Art of the Interview
by Bill Glose
As appeared in The Daily Press on March 17, 2015

If you are a writer hoping to enhance a story with great quotes, there are a few things you should do to put your interview subject in the right frame of mind to speak openly. First, you should request to meet “on location” if the story is thematic. If your story is about a sculptor, for example, then conducting the interview in the sculptor’s studio would be ideal. By conducting the interview on their home turf, you not only help to set your subject at ease, but you also gain insight into their process.

If location is not important to the story, try to conduct the interview at the subject’s home or office. This will allow you to examine the person’s workspace or living area. When you notice intriguing items, ask about their significance. If something is important enough to your subject that it is displayed prominently, there might be a backstory worth telling.

Avoid conducting your interview in crowded, public settings like restaurants or coffee shops. The ambient noise can make your recording of the interview impossible to understand later when you try to transcribe it. In addition to bringing a recorder to capture what they say, you should bring a pad of paper to capture what you see. Describing someone’s mannerisms and gesticulations as they talk is a great way to add personality to your story.

You should, of course, research your subject beforehand. Check online for bio pages and other articles that have already been written about them. This will help you in two ways: first, you’ll be well versed in the topics being discussed, which will lead to a more relaxed conversation; and second, you’ll be able to prepare a few “throwaways” to begin your interview.

What are “throwaways?” They are simple questions whose answers you already know. To set your subject at ease, ask questions with data-driven answers that don’t need quotes, questions like: When did you create this company? What job did you hold before that? After they’ve gotten comfortable with the Q&A format, it is time to switch to open-ended questions. These are questions that require explanation based on the subject’s knowledge and feelings, allowing their personality to shine through as they provide descriptive details. These are questions like: How did the idea for this company come about? How did your previous job prepare you for this?

If your subject’s answers are too short to be quotable, you can lead them into lengthier discourse by remembering two words: How and Why. Those are the pry bars you can wedge in the tiniest of responses to open them wide. A good follow-up to a terse reply is, “And how/why did you do that?”

You should come to the interview with an idea of what specific topics you want your subject to expound upon and a list of questions that will lead to that exposition; however, you should also be willing to let the interview wander off the map into uncharted areas. More important than the questions you’ve prepared are the new ones that come up based upon what your subject is saying. If they veer into another topic, it is because it is something on their mind that matters to them; and if it matters to them, they will be more animated and more likely to divulge something that injects their personality into the article.

Remember, the subject is the story, not you; readers want to get inside the mind of the subject, to feel like they are sitting across from them on the couch spilling their most intimate secrets. And the only way your subject will do that is if they feel comfortable and you allow them to pontificate about whatever matters to them. As long as they are impassioned, don’t interrupt, even if they’re rambling. When it is time to transcribe what you’ve recorded, it is sifting through these impassioned passages that you’ll discover the gold of great quotes.