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Interview tip #2: Throw away your list of questions

Second in a series of seven blog posts on interviewing techniques for nonfiction authors.

In the first article of this series, we considered the kinds of interviews you might conduct to draw out material for your nonfiction book. Maybe a probing Q&A, or a nuts and bolts background fact-check, or (my personal favorite) a revelatory conversation. In this article, we’ll look at how you set about gathering the kinds of information, impressions, and responses that will be true gold for your book.

Before you sit down to conduct your interview, I recommend that you draw up a plan. This is not a list of questions, because that is the one thing most likely to drain the life out of your conversation. I’ve been interviewed by reporters with a list of questions on their notepad, and it feels about as lively as being interviewed by Siri.

Your plan might start with a scripted kickoff to set your intention, something like: “Above all, I want to identify challenges that your company has successfully navigated in building their brand, and to share lessons from that with our readers. I've picked some directions that I think will fulfill that aim, but I am very open to exploring any other areas that you think might be fruitful.”

After that, it might be just a bunch of dot-points:

  • First day of operations, what do you remember

  • Don Henley lawsuit—how you heard about it*

  • How different was the first version of your product from today’s offering

Think of this plan that you write up in your notepad as a dynamic document—it’s really just a set of prompts for your conversation. Become very familiar with it so that you can keep sifting and shuffling topics and questions in the back of your mind throughout the interview without taking yourself out of the conversation to refer to your notes too often.

Go with the flow of the conversation, although if it gets off topic be prepared to turn off the tape and say, “I'm feeling like we're going in different directions. Let me try to explain where I'm trying to go and see if we can go in that direction."

A great interview is much less methodical and thought out than you might expect. The best ones come from getting swept up in the story. Immerse yourself totally in what your interviewee is telling you. I want you to reach a point like when you’re watching a great movie, and you’re thinking, “I can’t see how you’re going to escape the villain/beat the clock/find your true love!” Or a cliff-hanger in a TV series that leaves you desperate to find out what happens next. If you are in the moment with your guest, they will take you along on the journey with you. All you will have to do is nudge them a little.

I’m making it all sound very simple and fluid, but researching your guest beforehand is the key to guiding and shaping the story. That’s what will help you to nudge your interviewee, by teeing up a great anecdote for them to knock out of the park. “I heard your brother became a little TOO involved,” or, “Didn’t you have an unexpected visitor around that time?”

Guide them in a way that still allows you to be surprised. Even though you know the story you want to hear, it’s a very different experience to hear them describe it in their own words.

End the interview with a final question inviting them to open any doors you haven’t yet explored. “Is there anything that’s come to mind for you during our conversation that we should talk about before we finish?” Make this last question very specific, to give your interviewee a chance to mention any details that may have come up while you were talking rather than opening up new avenues and concepts.

So how do you do all of this if you are interviewing, say, your own boss? That’s what I’ll be talking about in the next blog post in this series.

*A real example—when I worked with the Duluth Trading Company on their book about their company story, this was a great anecdote we included.

Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay


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