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Can We Talk? How not to conduct an interview
by Liz Walker

It was Barbie's 35th Anniversary. You know, that blonde chick with the perfect figure. She's older now, 40 something, but at the time she was turning 35 and my very first interview for publication was with an employee at Mattel, the place where she was created.

Before I made my call, I wrote two pages of notes and some very stiff, formal questions. Since I had no background in journalism I didn't have a clue what I was doing. Fortunately, I was saved because the woman I had called was in the public relations department. At least one of us knew what was going on. From the moment she picked up the phone she rattled off background and statistics, more than I could possibly use in my little article, and to top it all off, the next day she sent me a huge press package with even more information. If only they were all so easy.

A couple years later, I interviewed a local toy storeowner. This was a face-to-face interview in a tiny room, the size of a closet really, at the back of the store. The subject was "classic children's toys." I had a few questions prepared but I had grown accustomed to the "you tell me" style of interview like the one with Mattel, so I hadn't done much preparation. When I asked the owner what toys she thought were classics she said, "Hmmm...blocks." No kidding.

I spent about thirty excruciating minutes trapped in a closet with a woman who seemed incapable of saying more than three words in sequence. I ended up putting words in her mouth. "So you think dolls are good for both girls and boys?" "Hmmm...yes, dolls."

Do as I say, not as I do.

So now that you know what not to do, take some suggestions from Elaine Shimberg, author of Write Where You Live: Successful Freelancing at Home. (Writer's Digest Books, 1999).

* Research your subject. Do your homework beforehand so you don't ask questions you could have answered for yourself. This is especially important if you are doing a profile. Get all the background you can gather before the interview.

* Plan specific questions and have more than you need answered just in case. Word them so you are asking for the experts opinion, feelings and experience. Ask, "How did you?" or "Why did you?" But don't be so focused on your questions that you fail to hear an opening for another line of questioning.

By land, by sea, by air

Today there are more ways to conduct an interview than there are ways to travel. Okay, so maybe that metaphor doesn't work, but here's my point: most of your interviews will probably be conducted in person for good reason.

* Personal interviews allow you to study how a person speaks and observe their body language. They also provide opportunities for spontaneity and inspiration. But if a personal interview just isn't possible there are other options.

* Phone interviews are the next best thing to being there. You can guess why. Not the least of which being that the give and take of natural conversation can still occur.

* E-mail can be almost as good as phone interviews if the person you are interviewing is online as much as you are. I once interviewed a woman through email who I "spoke with" four times in one day. AOL currently offers instant messaging, which even non-AOL users can get access to for free. Instant messaging amounts to a private online chat in real time. It's like talking on the phone through your fingers, sort of.

* Online chat rooms and message boards are great, especially if you need to interview several people or a particular group of people. I've used a public message board to find moms who had set up their own businesses online and a private one to locate birth mothers who had given up their children for adoption.

* There is also the good old U.S. Mail. If you have enough lead-time to write and wait for a response then this is a great way to get detailed information. When the respondent has time to sit and ponder your questions you often get answers that are more insightful and well thought out. If you have a survey you need answered than "snail-mail" is your best bet.

* And don't forget the fax if your expert has a business, chances are good that she will have access to a fax machine. This gives you both the change to think about what you are going to say but its faster than snail mail and more "in your face" than email. Who can ignore that ringing and beeping?

So the next time, or the first time, you get ready to conduct an interview, remember that closet at the back of store. It could happen to you if you aren't prepared.

© Copyright 2000, Liz Walker

Liz Walker is a freelance writer who specializes in family and parenting issues. Links to her articles can be found on her web site at lizwalkerwriter.tripod.com

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