You finally nabbed the interview you want because you approached your subject professionally and did your background research. You’ve been granted a precious hour. Don’t wing it and risk getting sidetracked. The mind seeks order. Help it out. Organize your questions so they inspire quotable quotes.
Quotable Quotes Start with a Freewrite
List every question that comes to mind.
- Don’t worry about wording – yet.
- Don’t censor your thoughts: Is it a stupid question?
- Think of the journalistic Five W’s and an H — Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? — and fashion questions around them.
Your final list will cover the complete range of your questions, in no logical order. Now put them in order.
Find Related Questions and Group Them
Find questions on similar topics and group them together. For instance, if you’re writing about the person’s life, your questions may cover events from the person’s childhood, young adulthood, and later adulthood. Thank the Cut and Paste functions on your personal computer for making this step a joy (see “Jumpstart Your Next Book through Freewriting”).
Put the Groups in Their Logical Order
Look at the groups of questions. Which would be the best group to begin your interview? In the example above, you might want to arrange the groups chronologically — begin with the childhood questions, then the young adulthood questions, then the later adulthood questions.
Put the Questions in Order in Each Group
Now look at that first group of questions. I’ll bet one of them is better than all the rest to open up the formal interview. Label it number one. Which one comes next? Next? Use Cut and Paste to order the questions in group one; then move on to group two and so on until all the questions in all the groups are in a logical, flowing order.
Answer Your Level A Questions in Advance
These might include questions about the group your interviewee belongs to that are answered on the group’s website. Basic biographical information is readily available over the Internet (see “Preparing Your Interview Questions”).
Revise “Yes/No,” “Either/Or” Questions
Interviews become good reading when you obtain colorful, authoritative, quotable quotes from well-written, open-ended questions. How interesting is: “‘Yes,’ she said”?
Keep It Simple
Imagine being asked: “What is your opinion on…? What I mean by that is…? In other words,…?” Find one way to word the question and ditch the rest.
Don’t Forget Your Introductory Questions
The rapport-building stage begins with the initial handshake and a few small-talk questions. If you don’t trust your imagination to come up with a good question on the spot, think of a few good ones beforehand.
My friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheryl James, suggests another question to show respect and help reduce stress of your interviewee, who may have never been interviewed before: “Do you have any questions for me?”
Final Four Questions
At the end of the interview, ask these four informal questions:
1. Is there anything you would like to add? So your interviewee can clarify any incomplete answers and correct any accidental misstatements.
2. What books, articles, or Web sources might help me in my search? You indicate your subject when you arrange for the interview so your interviewee can gather further sources.
3. Who else can you refer me to? Don’t forget to ask for phone and email. If you’ve built trust during the interview, you can usually count on getting one or both if they are available.
4. May I call or email you if I have any follow-up questions? You will have follow-up questions after you process the answers you just received. With this question, you don’t have to worry about sounding stupid when you get back in touch.
Congratulations! You’ve freewritten an in-depth list of questions; grouped them together and ordered the groups; ordered the questions within each group; eliminated all closed-ended “Yes/No” and “Either/Or” questions; tightened up any confusing questions; added a few introductory questions to help you break the ice; and tied up any loose ends with your four final questions.
You are an interviewer to be taken seriously. You can expect colorful, authoritative, quotable quotes in return.
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This piece was adapted from Ken Wachsberger’s You’ve Got the Time: How to Write and Publish That Book in You. Ken’s other books may be found here and here. For book coaching, editing, and speaking, email Ken at [email protected].