If there is any journalistic format I’ve come to specialize in over the past 20 years, it’s writing profiles. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many I’ve written but I’d peg the number to be close to 300, especially due to the many profiles I wrote when I was editor-in-chief of news network Digital Journal for 15 years.
A key factor in writing profiles is ensuring the subject’s quotes are insightful and useful. Going back one more step, profile writers need to ensure they have sharp interviewing skills to get the most out of the hour or two they have with their interviewees, and that kind of professional development doesn’t happen in a fingersnap. It takes time to develop that Q&A acumen but I thought I would use this post to share what I’ve learned about interviewing so far.
Over-research to the point that you could pen a biography about your subject. You can never learn too much about who you’re interviewing, especially if they work in an area you’re unfamiliar with. Find out where they’ve worked, the schools they’ve attended, the articles written about them, the comments they’ve made on social. Get a full-circle view of their personality and CV before you sit down with them.
Ask yourself, what type of questions will inspire the most engaging answers? When you prep questions to bring to the interview, avoid the close-ended questions, which often come with “yes” or “no” replies, such as, “Did you enjoy your time at Stanford?” Instead, rearrange that kind of question to ask, “What kinds of things did you find fulfilling at Stanford, and what were some of the challenges you faced?” What has often worked for me is asking interviewees what motivated them to get into this or that career, and then drilling down deeper to find out if that answer is rooted in, say, their childhood or in what their parents did for a living. Actually, talking about that person’s parents often yields intriguing illuminating details about what their early life was like.
Be prepared to veer off course. Sure, you got your questions listed or memorized, and the interview is going fine, but be wary of sticking too close to the script. But there will likely be a moment in the interview when you have a chance to move away from your listed questions becuase you’ll hear an answer that…