“You gotta ask 'why' questions.'Why did you do this?'
A 'why' question you can't answer with one word.” – Larry King

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Issue 44   October, 2016

Interviews that get to the core of the story

Dear Sue,
Get to the core of the storyAn interesting article usually starts with a conversation with a “subject matter expert,” as companies like to call them. This person is the one with details on both the technical side and the human side of the subject.
Your job is to pull out the human side – sometimes against the instincts of the person you interview. How do you do it?
1. Do your research
Get the key information that will help you craft intelligent questions. Read background material. Look up unusual terms. Do a search on Google. Mark Nichol, on Daily Writing Tips, says, “Do not waste the subject’s time by asking questions that can be answered through research.”

2. Plan your questions
Take your research and think about what you want to ask, and what will pull out the human side of the story. Ask "Why?" and "What was that like?" The Canadian Press Stylebook says, “Rough out a list of questions. List them in logical order so you don’t jump from subject to subject.”
3. Be flexible
If you’re writing for an employee newsletter, the company may have specific points to get across. Pursue them, but follow your expert’s lead. Other interesting aspects may come up that will make for a better article. As Canadian Press says, “Let the interview take on a life of its own.”
4. Actively listen
Related to #3, start with a list of questions, but allow the conversation to follow a natural path. Ask followup questions when the expert goes in a different direction, and return to your other questions later. As Alex Palmer says in Writer’s Digest, “Avoid the temptation to half-listen and think ahead to what you’re going to ask next.”

5. Ask the “dumb” questions
You can’t explain something you don’t understand, so don’t be embarrassed to ask. I recently interviewed a quartet of brainy researchers, and warned them up front I would probably ask many times, “What does that mean?” and “Can you give me an example?” They were fine with that, and in fact expected it.
6. Set expectations
I often have to write to a specific number of words, so I tell my experts up front that we’ll cover a range of ground that will be useful for context but may not appear in the final piece. Carol Tice on her Make a Living Writing blog says, “Be respectful of people’s time and don’t give them unrealistic expectations of how much you’ll quote them.”

7. Ask for more
At the end of the interview, ask if there is anything your conversation hasn’t covered that should be in the article. I also usually ask, “If the reader remembers just one thing from this article, what do you want it to be?” That often becomes a great place to start writing.
Do you have other tips to set up a great interview? I'd love to hear them. Please hit "reply" to share.

Freelance writer Sue HornerMay I help you?
Many of my clients are overworked corporate communicators who appreciate a writer who provides clear, friendly and readable copy. I simplify the complex, uncover “what’s in it for me?” and find the human angle in just about any story. Contact me and let’s chat about how I can take some pressure off your day.
Sue's photo: Rob Jeanveau of IABC/Golden Horseshoe. Apple core by "foto76" and


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