How To Prepare to Interview the Subject of your next Feature
What can you do to prepare to interview someone about whom you know little or nothing when you are given a feature writing opportunity?
- Read a minimum of three pieces that about the person. Read a maximum of as much as you possibly can as time allows. As a rule of thumb, the more notable the person, the more research you should do.
Now you’re probably thinking, “Wait…why do you say that?”
The more accomplished the person, the greater the likelihood that more has been recorded about them. This increases the difficulty of creating a unique and interesting feature. When you research, look for things that have already been covered but that leave you with questions.
2. Go out of your way to avoid repetition; take a minimalist approach to already covered items.
Check major news outlets, Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Huffpost, LinkedIn, memoirs, and any other sources you can find with biographical information. Look specifically for a new or unique piece of information that you can use as a talking point.
If the subject is not famous, or typical research sources leave you with little, find out everything you can by speaking to his or her friends, neighbors or business associates to learn more.
Suppose you have the opportunity to interview U.S. Olympic swimming champion Mark Spitz. Let’s say you are young enough not to have heard of Mr. Spitz and after you read “swimming champion,” you thought: “Michael Phelps.” That’s okay, read on.
A little online digging reveals that Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, breaking records in each of those events in the 1972 Munich, Germany games. (Phelps broke Spitz’s record in 2008 in Beijing, China.) However, the murder of 11 Israelis in an attack on the Olympic compound by Palestinian rebels in Munich remains inextricably linked to Spitz’s historical wins.
Working from references on Wikipedia, a 2004 Reuters article that discusses how Olympic officials belatedly realized that Spitz, a Jew with seven gold medals, could have become a prime target. Spitz, still in the Olympic village watched while the events unfolded. The officials decided for his safety to send Spitz home and put him on a plane to London.
Discussing that event would be an excellent starting point for your interview as it remains historically significant. Now, over 40 years later, Spitz might have new perspective about the experience. Ask about the details he remembers of that day, the weeks following, and what it means now.
When conducting an interview about any traumatic event, frame your questions sensitive to the idea that your subject bore witness to it and be prepared to change your line of questioning in the event he or she outright refuses to discuss it.
Additionally, and perhaps less notably, one of Spitz’s purported hobbies is art collecting. You can dig deeper to learn about his collection. Consider how it reflects his personality and experiences. Ask to see some if you can. Perhaps there’s a connection between the art and the athlete.
Some basic searching will also tell you that Spitz, along with other noted athletes, has promoted the importance of quality health care. A myriad of potential questions about what he did and why could add body to your feature.
The Olympic games massacre in Munich, Spitz’s art collecting, and his interest in promoting health care are three distinct potential topics of conversation that I considered after less than ten minutes of research. If I were actually planning to interview him, I’d spend much more time digging.
Research the person whom you plan to interview and prepare as many questions as you can. I prefer to have 10 questions for every 15 minutes of interview time allowed and aim to have too many questions for the allotted time.
Most importantly, listen to the answers given. Ask spontaneous questions if you think the conversation is taking an interesting direction. You can always revert back to your prepared questions as time allows.