How to Interview an Intellectual
I recently interviewed the head of a science department at a major medical center. He is a very intelligent guy, but a challenge to interview. Like any good reporter, I was trying to elicit some new information and a few good quotes for my article. Unfortunately, this very intelligent gentleman spoke in words that were above the grade level I typically use in my writing. He was also prone to going on unrelated tangents, and if he didn’t like my question, he gave a very brief, not-so-helpful answer. Ultimately, I got the information I needed, along with some good quotes. Have you ever had a tough interview with a scientist or doctor? I want to share with you some tips on how to interview one of these intellectuals.
Know what you want from the interview
What kind of information and quotes will help elevate your article? Having a good outline or idea of what the finished product will look like can help determine what type of responses you are hoping to get and guide the interview.
Do your research
This should go without saying, but make sure you have at least a cursory knowledge of what you are interviewing the person about. Do a little background reading not only on your topic but also on the person you are interviewing. This can help the interview flow in a more conversational way and may get you better responses.
Draft your questions ahead of time
This is key. Having your questions ahead of time provides an outline of the points you are hoping to discuss. The list of questions can also keep you an track when the interview veers off course with the inevitable story or potential interruption, and can keep you from missing important points.
Ask them to clarify their answers
When my scientist gave answers using words that were not in the every days usage of my average readers, I simply asked him to reword his answer in a way that the readers would understand. Be polite about this. Just let them know you want to make sure everyone can understand what is being said.
Allow for follow-up questions
Ask your subject to expand on their answers by saying things like “what do you mean by that?” or “tell me more.” This is where you will get some meatier answers and, possibly, better quotes.
Let them tell you a story
Sometimes the stories can add great anecdotes that will add interest to your article. Just don’t let them go too far off on an unrelated tangent.