I participate in a writing forum. I had a request for a blog post that explains interviewing from my perspective. (More like an order.) Seriously, I appreciate the request, so here you go.
I am by profession a freelance writer. What exactly does that mean? I write for a variety of media. Editors call or email me and give me assignments. Assignments to me are the people I interview. I research the person, interview them, produce a piece and get paid. Occasionally I write web content; not my favourite thing to do. I write advertorials for newspapers too. Sometimes I write about things like swimming pool pumps, or school bus safety, or wind energy. When I write about ‘things’ I sniff out subject matter experts and ask their opinions.
Writing isn’t all about sitting in front of your computer. Writing is social. At least my kind of writing is. I like talking to people, asking questions. I love the challenge of developing a rapport with my assignments. I think if I can get them to laugh I may be able to get them to reveal more of their personality and character to me. I’m getting better. Interviewing takes practice. Not asking leading questions takes practice. I’m working on my voice too. Where do I fit in the interview? I’m not a journalist. I’m a writer. I have a part to play in my writing.
With each interview I have a secret goal. I want to leave my assignment feeling better about themselves than before our conversation. An odd goal, but I’m conducting the interview, so I get to call a few of the shots. I ask them questions. They answer me. I try to get them to see themselves from an alternative perspective. To see patterns in their lives they didn’t see before. We are all creatures of habit. We all leave a trail of breadcrumbs. The NHL goalie who joined the military is drawn, like air through a propeller, to be part of a team. His need for camaraderie and joint accomplishment the foundation of his life. The entrepreneur, successful in any light, yet still yearning for acceptance and understanding. Still defending and apologizing for the depth of her passion to make money, simply because she is a woman.
There is a responsibility to interviewing and freelance writing beyond decent grammar and spelling names correctly. The biggest responsibility is in the telling of the tale. Sometimes, the one line a subject matter expert offers is their moment in the sun. It’s their 15 minutes of fame, so to speak. My tragic flaw as a writer, aside from a rebellious disregard for the rules of grammar, I want to interview people for hours. In fact, I usually do. I genuinely want to know all about them. I want to understand them. I care about their story. Listening becomes paramount, so much more important than the questions. As their walls come down the pattern of the story is revealed. I see it in my mind’s eye long before I sit at my computer. There is a pivotal moment in every interview I wait for. The moment when together we move beyond the conversation they imagined we would have on to the conversation I knew we could have.
I know I have done my job when they close the conversation by asking me if they might see the story before I send it to my editor. I know then they are concerned they said too much. They were too free with me. But I am not an investigative journalist. My goal is not to dig and expose. Remember my goal? To see if I can leave them with a different perspective. An appreciation of what they have accomplished. Sometimes an appreciation of their failures. Some freelancers would think I am wasting my time. Do the interview and get out of Dodge. Nah. Where’s the challenge in that? Improve the human condition if you are given the opportunity. Why wouldn’t you? It’s as simple as following the breadcrumbs.