Small talk your way to a good interview

I often conduct interviews to gather the information I need to write. As a former journalist I interviewed politicians, police officers, athletes, award winners, and experts on various topics too numerous to clog this blog with, in order to write articles ranging from feel good features to front page news. As a technical writer I have interviewed company officers and directors, engineers, and workers on the plant floor in order to write manuals, procedures and work instructions. Some of the fiction I’ve written required interviewing someone experienced with the topic I was writing about.

Whatever the reason for needing to conduct an interview, writers sometimes find themselves looking for a blueprint, a plan, any advice at all to make it as painless as possible for both interviewer and interviewee.

The web is awash in advice for interviewing. Naturally some of it is great, some good, and some barely adequate. Many seem to focus on making the interviewer more comfortable by feeling in control. But the best advice, I believe, is to focus instead on putting the interviewee at ease.

How can you do that?

Treat the interviewee like a person you’ve been wanting to meet and get to know. Start off with small talk. From there move the discussion to issues of comfort (where they’ll sit, if they want something to drink, etc.). Continue talking about anything but the interview subject until it’s time to begin, working in a discussion of the ground rules (such as on vs off the record, how to stop the interview if either party is uncomfortable, or a review of the purpose of the interview) alongside talking about the weather or bad traffic, or the funny sign you saw on the way there. It doesn’t matter what you talk about as long as it isn’t the topic of the interview. What’s important is establishing a connection by treating the interviewee as a person first, and an interviewee a distant second.

By the time you get to the interview itself, both interviewer and interviewee should be feeling at ease and ready to discuss the topic at hand.

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6 thoughts on “Small talk your way to a good interview

  1. This couldn’t have come at a better time. In doing my research on a subculture, I willl have to interview a few different people, likely strangers I have not met until I approach them for information. This is helpful information on how to begin by striking up a friendly conversation. Thank you!

  2. Right on! Your ability to make that conversation is the key to a successful interview, I think. Many people have never been interviewed before, many don’t know the interviewer. You have to make them feel safe and comfortable. While I am in control, I like to give them some control too.
    “If I ask a question you’re not comfortable with, let me know.” Often it’s just a matter of re-phrasing.
    I’m not an investigative journalist. I’m never going to ask “Who were you sleeping with on the night of May 9th, 2004? Or “”Do you honestly believe that the neuroplasticity integrates with the hypopsychotropism?” I just want to know about their job and their successes and how they overcame difficulties.
    I also find that if I’m interviewing in the person’s home or office, that initial relaxed conversation might lead to the offer of a cup of coffee afterwards. That’s when you get the really good stuff!

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