How To Be Interviewed

I very rarely write articles on controversial topics, or dig into the important news of the day. That’s not the kind of writing I do — it’s not what most journalists do, now that daily news is available through so few sources. Instead, I write feature articles on interesting trends and businesses in my community. It seems like it would be easier to get people to talk about themselves and their work that way, since I’m, in a sense, promoting them and letting more people know about what they do. But even in that case some people don’t like talking about themselves. Others ask, after talking for 20 minutes or more, if they’ve said too much. I always answer, “The more you give me, the more I have to work with.” Which is true.

TV interview

An interview in action. (image: Bartlomiej Stroinski)

 

Here are a few ideas on how to interact in an interview.

You will be quoted.

When a writer is working on a feature story, like the ones I write, or when a TV, radio or internet personality is interviewing you, they’re not your enemy. They want to get you to talk as much as you want to promote yourself. If you don’t want to talk with them, why did you agree to have a conversation? Be aware that what you’re saying can be included on a broadcast or in an article.

Contribute ideas.

If you have something to say about the topic of the article that the writer didn’t think of, go ahead and say it! It can lead to more questions that can make the article (and its subject, you) more interesting. An interviewer should do at least a little bit of research before they approach you, but you’re the one who knows the most about the topic; that’s why you’re being interviewed. Answering questions with a “yes” or “no” doesn’t help anyone.

Clear away the ignorance.

One technique that’s been successful for me is to act like I know very little about a topic when I approach someone. That contradicts what’s above, that interviewers should do research ahead of time, but in this case it’s more like getting the same information twice. A writer can listen to a musician’s new album and describe the sound of the album, and the songs they like best, but it’s a different experience when the musicians themselves describe how they wrote those songs and recorded them.

Several years ago, I wrote about a new church in town (which has since shut down, unfortunately). Everyone knows what a church is and what it’s for, so instead I asked what made the church unique: how did this specific group of people come together and start a new church? Why did they leave their old churches? Why should someone — say, a person reading the article — want to come to the new church? By acting like I didn’t know anything about the church, I gave my interview subjects a chance to explain themselves, and do a little thinking about their own motivations for being there. The church had a mission statement written on paper, which is a place to start, but mission statements are usually dry and wordy. Asking people about themselves, about what gets them excited about whatever it is we’re talking about, gives you real answers… ones you want to write about, and you want your readers to see.

A Tale Of Two Articles

Yes, a terrible pun that has been used many times before… but it’s very accurate. This month (March 2018) in Encore magazine I did have two articles, on two different topics:

  • The Marmalade Dog game convention at Western Michigan University
  • Slot car racing at the Gilmore Car Museum

They’re both “nerdy” hobbies, that’s true, but that’s also something I focus on when writing for Encore (just recently I wrote about cosplay, and computer games, tabletop games and much more in the past). So it stands to reason that I’d write about them.

Actually writing the articles is one part of the process, but it’s actually toward the end of everything that needs to be done.

The Pitch

When people find out I write magazine articles, they ask if I have to come up with the ideas (and if so, how do I come up with them?). The answer is “sometimes, and other times they’re presented to me.” For this month’s articles it was one of each. I’ve attended the Marmalade Dog several times in the past — I’m a fan of tabletop games, and it’s very nearby — so I thought a profile on the convention would be a good compliment to the other “nerdy” articles I’ve written about before. Slot cars was offered to me by my editor, but I readily agreed to write it, since learning about obscure little hobbies is pretty fun for me.

The Interviews

This is the real part of reporting, even feature reporting like I’m doing here: talking to people. Pick up the phone, send an email, ask around about who to talk to in order to learn more. The internet has been the perfect tool for this; when I was starting out as a journalist, there were BBS and primitive sites like Prodigy, but they were definitely not the first place you went for information. Now, a quick web search turns up an email address or a phone number (note: if you want people to reach you, don’t require them to fill out a contact form, give them options so they can better explain what they want, instead of cramming it into your little form).

Contact Form

This is OK, but not just this. (image: 1stwebdesigner.com)

 

Figure out what you want to ask about first. I ask myself what a reader would want to know and ask that; even if I already know the answer, it’s good to hear it from an expert’s mouth (plus, I could be wrong). People are also protective of their time, and if you can’t explain the story you want to write, they’ll feel they’re wasting their time talking to you.

Ask questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no.” You can’t write an article if you don’t have enough material to work with, after all. Also ask for statistics (number of participants, amount of money spent, length of time devoted to the project, etc.). Just like on a resume, everyone appreciates seeing concrete figures; it’s something to hold on to.

That’s where I start when I’m working on an article.

Writing Short: What I Do For You

A summer has passed, and I am writing on this blog again. This time it’s after I’ve been considering just what it is that I offer my clients, both existing ones and ones that have not yet reached me. What do I do that adds value to their business? What do I do that no one else does better? There are many writers available online, even some offering rock-bottom prices for their work (but remember, you get what you pay for — do you want just words, or actual writing?). But here’s what I do that others don’t: I write short.

Short-legged dachshund.

Short… you know, like a dachshund. (image: Michal Zacharzewski)

 

Writing short isn’t as easy as you might think. Anyone can write a sentence to say what they want to say, but figuring out what you actually want to say and just saying that is a different skill. An unskilled writer knows what they’re trying to say, but doesn’t actually say it, because they don’t know the right words, or because they can’t get the words from inside their head to the page. Mark Twain criticized James Fenimore Cooper for his poor writing in the “Leatherstocking Tales.” Those are rules I can follow, that others can’t:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

There are 11 other rules in the essay too, but there are the ones I’m writing about now. “Writing short” requires focus: figure out what’s most important about the subject of the piece, and say just that, quickly. It’s what editors do in newspapers and online, when trying to get you to read their content (I haven’t been on Fark in a long time, but I know they used to pick the version of a story submitted by the person who had the best headline). Yes, the headline itself is a short version of an article, one designed not necessarily to deliver the information, but to get you to spend time and possibly money reading the entire story.

There’s also TV and radio news, where writers consolidate an entire newspaper article or even a piece put together by an on-camera reporter into a paragraph. Try this exercise: Watch the 11 p.m. news one night, and look for the big story, the one a local reporter is on camera taking about. Then watch the 6 a.m. news the very next morning. That same story will probably be there, using a lot of the same video, but simplified, shortened to just the key pieces of information.

A short news story like that, one the anchor reads while you the viewer looks at scenes of people doing something, or terrible destruction (house fires, say), is a paragraph of text, about 20 seconds long while reading it out loud. You have to tell people what happened and what its long-term effects are, all in 20 seconds. It can be done, by writers who know how to write short.

That’s one of the skills I can offer my clients, using “the right word” and not extra stuff. I talked about it a little bit on my revised LinkedIn page, and I’m spreading the word everywhere else I write too.

Also, my occasional series on the Kalamazoo Can-Do Kitchen and its graduates continues this month with features on two businesses in Greater Kalamazoo Women’s Lifestyle magazine.