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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
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
* 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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