Monday, January 30, 2012

Interviews Part Three: Creating Your Questions

The right interview questions can make or break your article.
Photo by graur codrin

Now that you know who you are going to be interviewing, it's time to set up your interview questions.  While you might come up with a couple during the course of the interview, you need to know ahead of time what you are planning to ask.

Guidelines for Creating Interview Questions:

1.  Don't ask yes/no questions.  Keep questions open-ended.

2.  Work toward your interview subjects' strengths.  You chose these people for a reason.  A great starting point is "What is your position on..." or "How does your work directly affect the...."  These could also provide cues for some great off-the-cuff questions.

3.  Be careful to avoid bias.  You likely are trying to prove/disprove a thesis statement in your article, but there's no reason to advertise this fact.  Frame your questions carefully to avoid any appearance of bias.

4.  As writers, we have a tendency to write flowery sentences.  Knock yourself out in your article, but keep your interview questions short and to the point.

5.  Put a limit on the number of questions.  As tempting as it is to ask everything under the sun (especially if it's a topic that is especially dear to your heart), asking five really good questions can provide you with all the information you need for your article.  Remember that your interview subject's time is just as valuable as yours, and unless you are paying them for the interview, they are doing you a huge favor.  Want to increase your chances of interviewing them again?  Respect them by keeping your interview short and to the point.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Interviews Part Two: Asking for the Interview

I prefer to email my potential interview subjects.
Image by Stuart Miles

Now that you've chosen your interview subjects, you need to somehow convince them that they are eager to speak to you.  This can be a little bit tricky, but a little honesty and flattery go a long way.  The main key here is to let your potential interviewee know that you have a problem and they are the only ones who can help you solve it.  This may or may not be true, but if you can get them to feel like they are the gatekeepers of knowledge, you will pique their interest and stroke their ego a bit at the same time.  And don't we all want to be special?

1.  I like to approach a potential interviewee via email.  It isn't intrusive and they are free to get back to me at their convenience.  The other benefit to this is that I can carefully craft exactly what I want to say and not have to worry about getting caught off-guard.  A possible drawback to this method is that it can be slightly impersonal, but I think that as long as you aren't sending a form letter, you should be just fine.  We are all pretty comfortable with email at this point, after all, and I think the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.  If you don't hear back within a few days, though, I do recommend a followup phone call.

2. Explain your problem.  Tell your subject exactly what your article is going to be about and why they have such a unique viewpoint.  Going back to my article example, the director of special education is one of the people who actually makes the policies (following legal guidelines, of course).  She also sits in on the IEP meetings for many of the kids entering secondary schools, so by this point, she's seen it all.  She really is in a unique position -- she clearly wants to do right by these kids, but she has to do so while adhering to the guidelines.  The professional advocate has sat in on possibly hundreds of these meetings, but has a completely different perspective than the school district.  I want to capture that, and I want to let her know that she is going to be the counterpoint in this article.

3.  Hand out a touch of flattery.  We all like to know that we are important.  If you've met the person you are interviewing, remind them of that and point out something positive about them.  I met the director of special education at my son's last IEP review and I was impressed by how concerned she seemed to be about the situation and how dedicated she seemed to finding solutions, so I told her that.  I have worked with the advocate and learned a ton from her about working within the system, so I told her that.  Nothing untrue, and letting your subject know his or her value can go a long way.

4.  Check your tone.  Use a respectful tone, regardless of how well you know your subject.  Your subject may need to request permission from a higher-up to grant you the interview, especially if they work for a large company or agency.  If your email gets forwarded up to a boss or media representative, you need to consider how they will receive it.  I don't think you'll get approval for "Hey man, I'm gonna write an article about how to screw over the district rofl!!! You in??????  See ya later, you up for drinks???"  Keep it professional.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Interviews Part One: Choosing Your Victims, I Mean Interviewees

Picking the perfect interview subject takes your article to a higher level.
Image by vichie81

One of my favorite research resources for articles is an expert interview.  An interview from someone who really knows their stuff doesn't just provide soundbites for the article, it can often provide thought-provoking extras and maybe even send the article off on a completely new tangent.  Without the interview, we might be just rehashing the same old research someone else already conducted, providing no new viewpoints or information.

I like to reach for the top when I go after an interview.  I want to get the most influential person I can, the person who is making the policies and who has the power to create change.  I want people who are working on the subject every day, from every angle.  I want people opposing viewpoints, I want controversy.

Sometimes I have a vague idea for an article and I conduct an interview just to see what ideas pop up.  I got a great article out of an interview I conducted with my son's Boy Scout leader.  It turned into my first feature story, and I'm very proud of it.

This time around, I have a very specific idea of where I want to go.  I'm writing an article about advocating for kids on the autism spectrum.  I know from my own experience and from other moms I talk to that dealing with the schools is difficult.  Even though we are supposed to be on the same team, it often feels like we aren't.  I work with a professional advocate to navigate the system.

When picking my interview subjects, I decided to snag the exact people who are at odds with each other.  I want the director of special education for the school district and the director of the advocacy program.  Two rivals, facing off.  I'm looking forward to hearing what each one has to say, where their opinions are the same, and where they differ.  Finding the common ground is going to be the meat of the article, but figuring out why there are differences in the first place might not only make some nice garnish, but could even provide fodder for a second piece.