When I worked for a newspaper, I interviewed a photographer who taped cable television shows for the local school system. He was a pleasant man and our interview progressed well, but I feared that the article would be bland. Near the end of our conversation, I commented on his ever-so-slight accent and then words spilled from out of his mouth. He’d literally gone from millions to mayhem; as a young child in Hungary, he’d lived in a mansion filled with servants. Then the Nazis destroyed his idyllic life and by the time the photographer was a young man, his parents were dead and he was a newcomer in the country of America. He knew how to take pictures, however, and so he supported himself in that way.
Everyone has at least one good story to tell. It’s the writer’s job, however, to uncover that story, because the subjects themselves often don’t realize how intriguing their tale is for readers. The photographer, for example, told me that I could include his personal history if I thought “someone would be interested.”
Newspapers and magazines (both online and in print) often publish profile pieces, which basically consist of material gathered through an interview of the person being profiled. Sometimes, you might have an opportunity to profile someone who has never been interviewed or profiled before.
Often, though, you’ll be interviewing someone for whom you can find information about online. In either case, here are tips:
1) Before you conduct an interview, read what you can (if available) about your interviewee online and in print interviews. By doing that:
- You can learn more about this person’s life.
- You can come up with questions that are different from what others have asked.
- You will know what information you simply want confirmed by the interviewee (perhaps, as just one example, his or her educational credentials).
2) Create a list of “must-have” questions, ones that you need to have answered.
3) Create a list of questions that will take your article in a different direction from what other writers have done.
4) If published interviews only seem to portray a person in his or her professional life, see if he or she is willing to talk about life outside of work.
5) If published interviews only seem to talk about a person as an adult, see if you can find out details about his/her childhood. Does it make sense that this person developed into the adult that he/she did? Why or why not?
6) If appropriate, include offbeat questions that will add a personalized touch to the profile:
- If someone mentions having grandchildren (even if that isn’t the focus of the piece), you could ask what his/her grandchildren call him/her – and why. You might get a whole other perspective of a person this way.
- If someone is frequently interviewed, ask what would still surprise readers to learn about him/her.
- Ask about a person’s favorite food/color/flower.
- Sometimes, the direction of an entire interview may end up focused on a quirky aspect of a person’s life, as this interview did.
7) At the end of the interview, ask these questions:
- What should I have asked you that I didn’t?
- If I have follow up questions, can I contact you – and, if so, how?
8) If you want a book that includes 70 full pages of fascinating interview questions to ask, get a copy of The Oral History Workshop: Collect and Celebrate the Life Stories of Your Family and Friends.
9) When you are writing up the profile piece, make sure that you start with the most intriguing piece of information that you can – perhaps a quote, perhaps an anecdote.
10) End with a quote or piece of information that causes the profile to come full circle, leaving the reader feeling satisfied.
Part 1) Interview a friend to get practice. This is a perfect time to try out offbeat questions. Write up the profile piece, even if it’s just for practice.
Part 2) Now, stretch your interviewing muscles a bit further and ask someone you know – but someone who isn’t a close friend – and repeat the process.
Part 3) Identify someone that you want to interview for a piece of writing that you’ll submit for publication – and approach him or her for an interview. By now, you should start feeling more comfortable with the process.