Conducting interviews can be a nerve-wracking experience for people who have either never done it or don’t do it often enough. I don’t know if any of the people I’ve interviewed in the last few years for stories have been as afraid as I was when I first started, but like every good skill, you get better the more you do it. Until then, you just need to pretend you know what you’re doing, or fake it ’til you make it.
I couldn’t tell you how many interviews I’ve conducted for stories over the last few years but it’s a lot. I average at least one or two interviews a week as a full-time freelancer now, specifically for Red Bull eSports where I talk to people in the fighting game community quite regularly. Every Thursday, I have a feature profile on someone related to competitive Street Fighter in a series called Casuals. You can find examples here. They’re typically somewhere in the 1200 to 1500 word range. That’s on the higher end of a typical feature word count. I’ve gotten so used to doing interviews that I don’t even use a list of questions for those stories. However, if I’m talking to someone about a new story, say for a different outlet like IGN or Pixelkin, I’ll go in much more prepared.
I was compelled to write this blog up because I interviewed Ryan “Gootecks” Gutierrez, one half of Excellent Adventures, and a long-time Street Fighter personality and player. At some point in the interview, he complimented me on my questions. I mentioned I did some research so I wouldn’t be asking him the same old questions and he responded, “I can tell.” That was a great feeling to have that acknowledged, especially mid-interview. By the end, we ended up talking on some topics for my upcoming story on him that I had no idea we’d be talking about. Those are the best interviews. They literally conduct themselves with me steering the conversation.
Tokido, who I interviewed in Japan at Tokyo Game Show
How did I figure it out? Here are some major points I came up with based on my experiences and trial and error.
What’s your angle? – Come up with some basic questions based on the intended angle of your story. You do have an angle right? Call of Duty or Call of Duty’s campaign is a topic. War crimes we are forced to commit (this is a story that’s been done) during gameplay is an angle.
Do research – When you know who you want to talk to, do a simple Google search for interviews with them. If there’s any written or video interviews, check them out and to see what kind of questions they’ve been asked. Try not to ask the same questions they’ve answered repeatedly in the past. It’s boring to them and people can just Google previous interviews. You want something fresh and meaty for your story.
Dig deeper – Come up with questions based on what you researched. These questions can be all-new ones related to your story or even some questions based on what the interview subject talked about previously. I think people respect you more when you show you’ve done some legwork on them.
Dig even deeper – This could be my most important tip. Try to come up with questions that dig even deeper into your angle or that might yield something completely interesting that you weren’t expecting based on responses in the interview process. Sometimes a string will pop out in the middle of an interview and you just have to pull it to see where it goes.
Example – I interviewed 2013 Street Fighter 4 Evo Champ Xian for Red Bull eSports. I asked a question about him winning Evo, which at the time was the pinnacle of a fighting game player’s career. He touched on the fact that shortly after winning Evo, he experienced the toughest time in his life. I was blown away by that because you’d think winning the Super Bowl of fighting games would be the greatest experience ever. He hit a low point because his performances suffered afterward and eventually, he realized it had something to do with his physical health and a lack of exercise. If I remember correctly, that part of the conversation was picked up on by other fighting game outlets.
Don’t ask yes or no questions – Pretty self-explanatory. You ask a yes or no question and if that’s all you get, you’re going to have a hard time pulling stories out of that. Instead of asking, “Was winning Evo your biggest accomplishment?” ask, “Why (or How) was winning Evo your biggest accomplishment?” or “What is your biggest accomplishment?”
Be specific – It’s okay to go off on a tangent but you don’t want to comb through a two-hour interview because you spent half of it talking about nothing helpful to your story.
Have a conversation, not an interrogation – You want to know a great example of how to conduct interviews? Listen to The Nerdist Podcast. The host Chris Hardwick is a fantastic example of simply having a conversation, drawing out interesting answers from his subjects, and making them feel comfortable. Obviously, this is something you do in a face-to-face or voice interview. If you’re doing it by email, it’s going to be a bit more rigid Q&A.
Don’t be afraid! – Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. If you don’t get an answer or a reasonable answer, try to frame the question in a different way. Or try to dig deeper if the response you get isn’t detailed enough. But also, don’t be afraid of people. Maybe I’d be nervous if I got to interview someone like Shigeru Miyamoto but everyone I’ve interviewed is human and while some may not be the best interview, I’ve never had a bad experience with an interview. I’m sure it will happen at some point but I’m confident in feeling like I’ve pulled a story out of every interview I’ve conducted. Don’t be afraid to go longer or shorter if you need to. People are busy so don’t expect they’ll spend 2 hours talking to you.
Record audio! – I don’t prefer doing email interviews because it doesn’t give me a chance to respond in the moment. Sitting down with someone is the best because you can see their body language but 90% of the time I’m doing interviews over Skype or phone. I just record them with recording software I use for Skype called Super Tin Tin or a voice recorder if I’m on the phone. Pro tip – don’t forget to hit record. I lost an hour and a half interview with two people I was interviewing at once and I hated myself for feeling like I wasted their time. If you do end up doing an email interview, ask if you can follow up later with more questions if you need to.
Don’t get ahead of yourself – Don’t conduct an entire interview if you aren’t even sure your story will land at an outlet. Again, I hate feeling like I wasted someone’s time. My first paid story was an EverQuest story on Kill Screen. I interviewed two different developers. I had at least 20 questions on one of those interviews. I ended up using a fraction of the content I had and it took months to get it published. Ask for a quick interview of a few questions so you can pitch a story and if they’d be willing to do a full interview once you’ve landed the story.
Evo 2013 USF4 Champion Xian, who I interviewed in Las Vegas at Evo 2015
These are tips I take into doing podcast interviews/conversations too. I feel confident in saying you could apply this to a video interview but I’m not at the point in my career where I’m interviewing anyone on camera.
I don’t want to get into the process of taking interviews and putting them to story in this post. I think that’s a different topic I will touch on later. I will say this though, if you plan on doing interviews, just do yourself a favor now and subscribe to Transcribe, a browser-based transcription software. It will save you a TON of time.
Please feel free to comment with questions or thoughts. As always, you can hit me up on Twitter @Bizarro_Mike.