We all want to tell great stories.

We want to illuminate surprising details, put the reader in the interviewer’s chair and surface quotes that perfectly capture a person’s experience and quirk.

But when you read a great profile, you don’t usually think about the interview behind it. The reality is that your story can only be as good as your source material.

That’s why you can’t just wing the interview.

Here are five hacks to keep your interviews from going off the rails and ensure you get what you need to make your stories shine.


interview search

#1
The Challenge

Building trust with your source

The Interview Hack

Do your research first.

If at all possible, don’t go into an interview cold turkey. You need to know what’s been written before about a person and his/her subject so that you don’t regurgitate the same old story and can go beyond base-level questions. Otherwise, what’s the use of the interview anyway? So maybe take some time reading up on astrophysics if your source has a star named after her — that’s all we’re saying.

Research can also mean interviewing your colleagues. Does a relationship manager, favorite professor or advisor know a great deal about your source? Tap them first to help uncover something unexpected that probably won’t show up on a LinkedIn page.

Ok, sure, that all sounds great. But what if there’s no time for research? You can still plan ahead. Have a canned set of questions always at your disposal that are suited for the types of people and story formats you produce.


open up

#2
The Challenge

Putting your source at ease

The Interview Hack

Explain the project and your process upfront. You can assuage your sources’ fears about the interview by giving them a chance to ask their own questions and a final review before your story is published (if appropriate).

Give a little of yourself. Your source is more likely to open up about a personal experience if you preface your question with a story of your own.

Lob an easy or silly question upfront to loosen up the tone. It will get you both into the flow of the interview.


time ticks by

#3
The Challenge

Turning a dull interview around

The Interview Hack

We’ve all been there in an interview: Thirty minutes ticks by with your source rambling, and you think “I’ve got nothing to work with here!”

Sometimes it takes going negative to provoke some passion. Try questions like: “Don’t you get tired of teaching the same thing?” Or “Why not just…?”

This approach, in particular, lures education leaders out of the standard administrator-speak answers.


details

#4
The Challenge

Drawing out important details

The Interview Hack

We’ve already hit on a couple of ways you can do this, but another way is asking open-ended questions or for multiple examples.

If your source tells you he got his degree so he could switch careers from an electrician to electrical designer, you better ask for real-world examples of how those two jobs are different, so you can convey the value of the degree and how it applies to his life.

Also asking questions like “What’s something you never thought you’d do?” or “What are you looking forward to next?” can often introduce something totally new to the conversation that’s also very meaningful to your source.


make the abstract tangible

#5
The Challenge

Making the abstract tangible — and relatable

The Interview Hack

Be smart about asking a dumb question.

Say you’re interviewing a scientist who’s researching bacteria and new antibiotics, and he starts describing how pathogens evolve to attack a person’s immune system. How do you communicate this information so that it’s accurate and in a way an everyday person can understand it?

Remember you’re not the expert, he is! After he talks for a while, repeat what you’ve heard back to him: “So do I have this right?”

You could also ask your source to reframe the information for a different audience: “How would you explain this to people you would meet at a party?” (Assume your expert is the life of a party, not the death!)

To make difficult-to-understand subject matter relatable, ask how it can be applied. How could it matter most for the people who might read this story? That gets you to an end result that is likely part of your lead.

LEARN MORE

Whether you’re managing a new brand after launch or story mining for a magazine, Zehno can help shape how audiences view your institution. Read more about our content development services.