Copywriter Q&A: Flori Meeks Discusses the Art of the Interview
COPYWRITER Q&A: FLORI MEEKS DISCUSSES THE ART OF THE INTERVIEW
The Writers For Hire (TWFH) team member Flori Meeks began her career in suburban Detroit as a community newspaper reporter. Throughout her impressive 25+ years as a writer, she has taken the skills she developed as a reporter and spun them into a successful career which has included penning everything from blogs and web copy to ghostwriting nonfiction books and autobiographies.
In this installment of Copywriter Q&A, Flori walks us through the art of the interview, and talks about some of the challenges that come with interviewing clients.
TWFH: For what kinds of writing projects do you generally conduct interviews?
FM: Most of the time, I conduct interviews for business clients’ internal articles spotlighting employees and community outreach projects. I also interview people for blogs and for nonfiction book/ghostwriting projects.
TWFH: How do you identify the people who need to be interviewed?
FM: When I’m working on a blog or article, the client usually recommends subject matter experts to interview, or I interview the person the piece is about.
For books, the client almost always is the first person interviewed. From there, I usually get ideas for other people to talk to. Maybe, for an autobiography, I might ask for permission to interview family members, friends, or business colleagues who can share interesting stories. They might provide a valuable perspective or insights that make the book more compelling or insightful.
For a book about business, history, or any kind of subject that requires research, I usually spot potential experts as I read articles and papers about the book’s topic. These are people who are quoted in the articles or wrote about the topic themselves.
In some cases, I’ve also gone to universities’ media relations pages, which sometimes list professors/experts who are willing to be interviewed.
TWFH: How do you schedule interviews? Do you reach out to people by email? Call them?
When I was a journalist in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I almost always called people to request and schedule interviews. These days, people tend to prefer advance notice before a call, so I email my interview requests — or if the interviewee prefers, I text them.
In some cases, with an interviewee associated with a university, for example, you have to coordinate through a media relations office.
During this process, whether I’m emailing interviewees themselves or an office, I usually include my questions in the email and give the interviewees the option of answering by phone or by email.
For book-related interviews, I sometimes send questions in advance, too, so the interviewee can think about their answers. If the book is relying mostly on the client’s interview answers—that’s usually the case for ghostwritten autobiographies and memoires—we sometimes schedule a series of interviews that might take place weekly or every other week until all of the information is covered.
TWFH: How long does a typical interview take?
FM: For a simple article or blog, the interview usually takes 30 minutes or less. For a longer or more complicated piece, it might take an hour.
For book interviews, if I’m talking with the person the book will be about, two hours per session is usually the ideal amount of time. If the interviewer starts getting tired, or thinking about the other things they need to get done that day, their answers aren’t as well thought out. That said, I’ve done some autobiography interviews that lasted all day, and because the interview subject was passionate about the project, those marathon sessions went very well.
TWFH: How do you come up with questions for your interviews?
FM: The goal is to have the interviewee provide information, insights, or an explanation of something that I, as the writer, can’t provide through research.
So, if I’m talking with a subject matter expert about a technological subject, I’ll ask questions that help me understand the topic (a new gizmo, for example), the key takeaway for readers (the new gizmo helps keeps widget company workers safer), and how to write about the topic accurately and in a way that will be easy for readers to digest.
For articles that are less technical, maybe a piece about a community outreach project or an employee achievement like completing a marathon, I try to ask questions that encourage the interviewees to reflect on the topic. “What excites you about the new food pantry?” “Why was that experience meaningful to you?”
For a book about someone’s life experiences, The Writers For Hire has developed an extremely detailed list of questions to ask, and I try to build on that, based on what I know about the person we’re writing for. If they were raised by a grandparent, for example, I might add a list of questions to try to better understand that experience and how it impacted them.
TWFH: Do you have a standard method for starting interviews?
FM: Not really, except I make sure they don’t mind if I record our conversation.
TWFH: What are the biggest challenges to conducting interviews, and how do you overcome those challenges?
FM: Well, first of all, it can be challenging sometimes to get subject matter experts to respond to interview requests, which I understand. They have a lot on their plate. In those cases, all you can do is politely follow up until they respond. Sometimes it helps to copy other people from their organization (a marketing person, media relations, other people on their team) so your emails don’t go into bulk mail, and the subject matter expert feels more compelled to respond.
During interviews for autobiographies or business insights books, it can be challenging at times to get people to reflect on the memories or examples they’re sharing. Maybe an executive can tell me about the time their business almost went bankrupt, but they find it more difficult to expand on how that impacted them or the lessons to be learned from that situation. It helps, sometimes, to ask questions about possible outcomes. “Did you change any of your processes after that?” “Did you approach deals differently?” “Have your relationships with team employees changed? How?”
Another challenge can be when interviewees go down rabbit holes or off-topic before providing the answer you need. In those cases, it’s just a matter of respectfully returning them to the topic you were trying to address.
TWFH: I imagine it can be hard to get some people to share deeply personal information. Do you have any tips to help make the interviewees open up?
FM: It depends on the person. Sometimes, if you have a sense of what the interviewee enjoys talking about, you can work in questions about that subject, so they relax and feel more comfortable answering your other questions.
Sometimes, if it’s appropriate, you can share a little about yourself, so the interview is more like a conversation. “When I was raising my children and working, I ran into this situation…What was it like for you?”
But, really, I’ve found the best way to put interviewees at ease and foster a good interview is to be respectful and a good listener. Ask follow-up questions based on what the interviewee is saying. “You said your uncle was your role model. Why? What are some of your favorite memories of him?”
TWFH: Is there anything (or any questions) that should be avoided when doing interviews?
FM: For questions to avoid, I would just use common sense: If something seems unprofessional or too personal for the circumstances, trust your judgment.
As far as things not to do in general, I would try to avoid interrupting the person being interviewed. Also, if you disagree with a point they’re making or with something they did (or didn’t do) in a memory they’re sharing, keep that to yourself. Instead, make sure you understand what they’re saying well enough to write about it — especially if you’re going to be ghostwriting from their perspective.
TWFH: How do you keep track of the information you glean from interviews? Do you take notes while you are interviewing people?
FM: I usually record interviews and take notes as a back-up. It’s something one of my journalism professors strongly encouraged, and it turns out she was right. When I was getting my start as a reporter, I had the opportunity to interview a well-known playwright for a community newspaper. When it was time to write the article, I realized something went wrong with the recording. If I hadn’t taken notes, that would have been a disaster. Recording technology has come a long way since then, but stuff still happens.
TWFH: Is there anything else that you feel is important for people to know about doing interviews?
FM: I think the best interviewers are good listeners. They treat interviewees with respect, and that puts interviewees at ease.
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