How to conduct an interview

I would love to know how the Humans Of New York guy gets such good quotes. While the photos get the job done, it’s the story he manages to extract from people he just met on the street that really intrigues me. Put them together, and the impact of HONY is terrific:

“My brother has a big face.” (cute Sikh kids)

“I’m raising a biracial grandson full time. Every time I try to discipline him, he says it’s discrimination.” (older gentleman)

“We’ve been in the shelter system ever since their father was murdered.” (woman and her kids in a homeless shelter)

Interviews are an important part of my copywriting work, and I would kill to have an eighth of this guy’s talent at getting the story. While most people think I lounge about in my furs, communicating telepathically with the universe while stroking my cat, interviews and face-to-face meetings are a huge part of what I do as a copywriter.


An accurate portrayal of a day in the life of a copywriter. Pondering the next amazing words. (thanks Gloria!).

It took me years to learn how to conduct a good interview. My first cringeworthy effort was a 200-word profile of the director of the German Film Festival. It took me 40 minutes over the phone and it was all hand-transcribed because I didn’t have a dictaphone. Yeesh. (Praise be to unpaid internships and volunteering, because you can pull shit like this.)

This is why trained journalists are considered ‘journalists’ and opinion writers and copywriters are not – a distinction that’s seldom made these days. We are skilled, but rarely trained. Copywriting is not a ‘profession’. We have no industry organisations or memberships. We are tradies who get stuff done, not alabaster-skinned poets.

So I’m a self-taught writer who learnt everything the hard way. Here’s my tips learnt over years of trial and error:

Set it up right
Everyone is busy. If you want 15 minutes, tell them will take 5-10 minutes over the phone. Even the busiest of people can spare that. And once they get going, you’ll find people are very generous and rattle along for 15 minutes or more. Just don’t let them rattle on for too much longer after that, because you’ll have to transcribe it later.

Yes, this is the most 1950s tip you will ever get from the Galloping Skirt. Sound like you mean it. Whether talking about truck filters or programs for disadvantaged kids, get into your topic. Be curious and stray well off your pre-prepared questions, if time allows.

Ask the occasional silly question…
Not like ‘do you enjoy your job’, I mean ask about their company mission statement or why they set up their organisation in a slightly kooky way. But do it without coming across as an idiot who hasn’t done their research. Very few of us have neatly filed pre-prepared soundbites, ready to go when asked. Many people figure things out by talking their way through it. So by asking a question that’s slightly ‘off’ you’re not only asking to be corrected, you’re asking someone to clarify.

Digesting a good lunch and wondering what the cat is up to.

…and always ask what that word means.
You know that thing at a party where you didn’t quite hear what someone said, yet you continue stroking your beard and going ‘hmmm’ until the room falls silent and it becomes crystal clear you have absolutely no idea what was just said? That. Everyone operates in a bubble and will absolutely assume you know what ‘homoscedasicity’ and other bleedingly obvious terms mean. Please ask. You will learn much.

Top tip: pretend to turn off the voice recorder
Sneaky yet so so effective. This one only works for face-to-face interviews, and when you have a slightly nervous subject impervious to one’s cosy chat and charms. Some people will only relax once they can’t see the flashing red light any more. I guarantee you’ll get most of your best quotes and insights as you’re shuffling papers and awkwardly groping through the sleeves of your coat. So leave it on.

Check their quotes before submission
Even if you transcribed it word-for-word, the CEO of Thing will always want to finesse their exact wording as they remember it. Please let them do it. Also, you may learn something! After a final quote check I learnt recently that you don’t say ‘disabled’ any more. It’s not PC! I am so old! (it’s ‘people with a disability’ by the way). I grew up in the era of The Spastic Society and god knows what other clangers, so am glad for the refresher.

I’ve never been interviewed, so I have no insight into what it’s like to be on the end of a good quizzing.

But I sometimes wonder what I’d say to that HONY guy if he caught me romping about Melbourne. In one of my terrible moods, a bouncy one, after an argument, a disappointment, or an indifferent mood, how would I respond to a stranger asking about my private life, bad decisions, current state of mind, career? Who knows what I’d blurt out. A good thing to keep in mind.


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