Recently, I published a two-part interview on ASweetLife with Maura Flanagan, a college classmate who radically changed her health habits and lost 100 pounds after a diagnosis with Type 2 diabetes. Read part one here and part two here.
These are my favorite kinds of stories to do. Interviews are akin to making one’s self a student of the subject. I ask in order to learn, and not to pruriently find out.
It takes both preparation and improvisation to conduct a good interview. As a teacher/scholar, when I’ve conducted studies on a teaching or learning question of interest, I usually incorporate an interview part. I really enjoy these kinds of engagements with people. And, whether the interview is for an online magazine or a research study, my method is similar. I describe it below, for other writers to consider as they develop their own practice as interviewers. At the end, as evidence that the method works, I quote Maura as to her experience.
- Browse and read about the topic. For the interview with Maura, I knew the emphasis of my questions would be on weight loss and health behaviors. I looked to the popular press to give me a general sense of the issues and vocabulary in this area. When I am preparing to do an educational research study, I look for pedagogical or research articles and get a sense of what others are doing in their classrooms or investigating in their own work. My reading doesn’t necessarily have a program to it — I don’t do a formal literature search or review — and I follow my nose.
- Quickly brainstorm a set of 15 to 20 questions of two types: (1) ones that ask the subject to summarize facts or describe experiences; and (2) ones that ask the subject to reflect and comment on the experiences (i.e., “How do you think/feel about…. X?”). I might give myself 45 minutes or an hour to do this, and I write the questions out in longhand.
- Put the questions in a logical sequence. I think of easing the subject into the interview: get him or her first to talk about what is familiar, what he or she knows. These are often the “what” questions, with factual or descriptive responses. Harder questions — reflective ones — either go immediately after a related “what” question or later in the interview.
- Contact the person or people to be interviewed, invite them to meet with you or have a phone date with you for 30 to 60 minutes, and offer a couple of sentences as to the topics you’d like to discuss.
- As the interview date approaches, go back to your questions and see if you need to add any explanatory preambles to your questions. Sometimes you might have to offer information or make an assertion to provide context for a question.
- During the interview, give the subject time to think and respond. Most people will talk for more than you think they will. Let them talk it out. Sometimes the gold comes at the end of a paragraph-long answer. (Take notes! Record the interview!)
- Share a personal fact or experience related to something the subject tells you, as a way of making the interview more akin to a conversation (which it is not) and reciprocating his or her trust.
- Learn to listen for the weighty moments and the bigger story, and improvise follow up questions on the spot. (This is where the art of listening comes in.) At the least, be ready to say, “Can you tell me more about that?” The goal is to find out things in the interview that you could not have found out in your reading of stuff already published.
- End with a broad, open-ended question, like “What is one thing we haven’t discussed that you’d like to me (or like our readers) to know about?” By the end of the conversation, the subject will be aware of things he or she wants to talk about that the questions are not eliciting.
The Maura story yielded a 20-page transcript (thank you, CastingWords). Afraid of it because there was so much rich material, I took more than a year to come back to it. As I started to work with it, I could see several themes that made it too big for a short article. I drafted part one, sent it to Maura for feedback and the editing of quotations, and then we went through the same process again for part two. I took the lead, but the project felt collaborative.
When complete, I got some affirming feedback from Maura:
Your questions really helped to facilitate my thinking and articulation of what I went through and still go through regarding weight loss […] . You also created an atmosphere as both an educated and understanding interviewer that made me feel comfortable exploring my thoughts and challenges more. In short, your style of interviewing allowed me to be more reflective than I normally am.
This is the ideal outcome for an interview, whether with a story subject or research subject — that there is benefit on both sides. The way the interview is conducted, not just the questions that are asked, matters.