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Anxiety-Free Interviews: How to Get the Info You Need —without Stressing out Over It
by Kelly James-Enger

Whether you’re a writer of fiction or nonfiction, the time may come when you’ll have to conduct interviews to gather information. Does the thought make you nervous? That’s normal.

Many writers dread conducting interviews, but having a blueprint for how you’ll proceed will help you overcome interview anxiety. Here’s a roadmap of what to do to find and interview experts for your work:

Track Them Down

First, you need to find your experts. Your background research may reveal good potential sources, and online databases like www.profnet.com offer thousands of experts in every discipline. Or check out The Encyclopedia of Associations, a three-volume set that’s updated annually. Find an association that matches the type of expertise you’re seeking. Then call the association, ask for their public affairs or public relations department, and request a referral to an association member. The PR person will know who the media-friendly members are, and usually will have background information on them as well—it’s a huge timesaver.

In addition, look for books on the subject; authors are almost always happy to be interviewed as it provides publicity. Universities and colleges also offer a stable of qualified experts. Call the school, ask for their public affairs or media affairs office, and explain what type of expertise you’re seeking.

Make the Connection

OK, you’ve located your experts. What’s the next step? Making contact. I call, introduce myself, and explain how I got the person’s name. Then I describe the story I’m working on and ask if she’s available for a brief telephone interview in the near future. I’ve found I can conduct most interviews in 15-20 minutes. If I need more time, I tell the source so he or she can plan accordingly.

Usually I use the first call to arrange an interview time instead of conducting it right then. This gives your expert time to think about the story you’re working on, gather any necessary information, and prepare to speak with you. I double-check the time and date, paying attention to time zones, and tell the source I’ll be in touch at the arranged time. I then make a note of the interview time, the person’s name and his telephone number in my calendar.

(Note that while I only rarely do interviews via email. A phone interview is more immediate and convenient for the person you’re interviewing. He or she can simply answer your questions orally without having to type up responses. Of course, if a source prefers an email interview, you can always accommodate that request.)

Ask the Right Questions

If you’re new to conducting interviews, write down the questions to cover. Don’t forget basics such as name (and double-check the correct spelling!), address, phone number, email, job title, academic title if applicable, and book title(s) if applicable.

Part of preparing for the interview is acquainting yourself with the subject you’ll be asking about. If you’re interviewing a doctor about a new medical procedure, read up on it so you have a better understanding of what it’s designed to do. Your sources shouldn’t be expected to spoon-feed you. By doing your homework in advance, you’ll save time and be able to ask more probing questions—and you won't be as nervous, either.

Pick up the phone, and make the call. When your expert answers, identify yourself and ask if this is still a good time for him to talk. You’ll set a positive tone for the interview right off the bat.

I like to give the expert an overview of what I’m going to ask, and then proceed with the questions one by one. If a source is tight-lipped, ask lots of “why” and “how” questions—like “Why did the results of your study surprise you?” or “How will this affect small business owners?”

When you've covered your planned questions, ask if the expert wants to add anything. I usually say something like, “Is there anything important I haven’t asked you that you’d like to mention?” I usually close the interview by telling the source I’ll be in touch with any follow-up questions, or if my editor needs any additional information.

Finally, I always send my experts personal thank-you notes to express my appreciation for their time. I include my business card and tell the source I’ll be in touch when the article is published. (If it’s a trade publication, I’ll usually offer to send a photocopy of the story—not the magazine itself—to the source.) While this takes a little extra time, people appreciate it. They’re also likely to remember you then next time you need an interview—which makes your job easier (and less stressful!) in the long run.

© Copyright 2006, Kelly James-Enger

Kelly James-Enger has authored more than a dozen books, including Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success (Writers Digest, 2012) and Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writers Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books (CreateSpace, 2010). Check out her blog, Dollars and Deadlines, for practical advice about how you can make more money in less time as a nonfiction freelance writer.

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