Advice for conducting an interview

I have put myself in the unprecedented position of being able to interview at least one someone about videogames a couple weeks from now.

I've never done that before.

But I know some people here have.

I wanted to make kind of an open ended thread soliciting any basic advice about how to conduct an interview for journalistic purposes. The closest thing I've done to it is administer training or conduct qualification boards. I am a comfortable (enough) public speaker but since this is the first time attempting this I figured I would ask. But its hard to even know what the right questions are.

Good questions vs bad/boring questions? When to not get in the way of someone vs when to ask follow up question? Perhaps theres an embarrassing mistake you made that you'd like to help me avoid? Preparing Q's in advance vs spontaneity? Any tips of things you've noticed that have worked well for you?

I'm trying not to overthink it (I'm sure it will all be fine and casual) , but thought it could be interesting conversation subject.

Even if you're like me and have little experience in this arena I'd still be interested in your thoughts as a observer. Would like to hear if maybe you have any particularly favorite (or least favorite!) interviews or questions or something.

Speaking from the point of view of a person who‘s never interviewed someone, but has been interviewed a couple of times–it’s best when the questions themselves provide insight into the interviewee‘s work and make them think about it in new ways. So basically, know your shit and have your own thoughts about it. If they’ve done other interviews read them so you know what they've already been asked.

Don‘t over study for an interview. It’s not a book report and your subject won‘t exactly be impressed if you just learned their entire Wikipedia page, or read every interview they’ve ever done and created follow-up questions from them.

I've done a lot of interviews with musicians/rappers and I think the best advice I can offer is to always organically ask questions based on your subject's answers. Have a sheet in front of you full of questions, sure, but only refer to that list if you can't keep a conversation going. Having a ton of questions is prep work, not a mandatory "I have 10 questions for you and I'll ask them in order" kinda thing. Conversations flow much better when you're actively listening to what someone is saying and not just waiting for your opportunity to respond. Don't be afraid to constantly prod and probe, but know when to stop and move on to your next question. If you dig deep enough into vulnerable/personal questions, ask if it's okay to go there first.

Also, remember to shut up. Don't respond after every answer you get with a "cool" or "alright". Just shut up and listen, and spend way more time in silence before asking your next question. In response to the silence, people often keep talking as they hear they've got more time to recall/reflect and form an answer. Or they just get uncomfortable with how silent it is and keep rambling.

Good luck, dude!

Here is an example you can learn from, except for the alcohol. Do not do that.

Edit: deleted as there was some info in there that is not supposed to be public.

I've done a ton of these and have made a lot of mistakes. The basics that will save you a lot of heartache (and may be obvious).

  • 1.

    Bring a recorder and make sure it works. Don‘t ever count on being able to remember any of it accurately. It’s a good idea to have both a legit recorder and an app on your phone just-in-case.

  • 2.

    It's helpful to have a plan to transcribe your recording. I use to do it myself and it sucked/was slow. Some outlets have a transcription service. There are transcription apps. Try them out.

  • 3.

    Write down about 7-10 baseline questions. These questions are partially to help you create a conversation starter, to set up follow up questions, and hopefully lead to the big questions you really want to ask. They are also a life saver when you finally dead end on a topic.

  • 4.

    Try to start with them introducing themselves and who they are first. As awkward as that is IRL, it's just a good way to start any interview article, and it's easy to forget to do that when you're all excited to get going.

  • 5.

    I am the biggest rule breaker on this one, but try to not make the questions too much about yourself. I'll be asking a question, but by my nature, start ranting off about crap as if anyone gives a shit what I think. Be conversational, but be aware when it's mostly you talking and them going, "Uhm. Yeah." They should be the focus. Sometimes I am really, really bad at doing this. :P

  • 6.

    This might seem weird, but I like to get there 10-15 minutes early and then use the bathroom. I clean myself up, get the jitters out as best I can, and make sure I'm ready.

  • 7.

    Off-the-record (if it comes up) is tricky and there are different schools of thought on it. I don't want anything I say on this to be misconstrued, so two things: consult your managing editor on this (good editors will guide you), and above all else: don't be sneaky. Being honest and trustworthy really does pay off in Games Press/PR.

  • 8.

    Try not to get star struck. Remember you're a professional there to have a conversation and ask questions that many other folks are counting on you to ask. If you do well and this becomes a regular thing, you'll likely be talking to them again.

  • 9.

    Have fun! I have some weird social anxieties and interviews should be complete hell (and some have been), but it helps to remember that you're talking to someone about things you enjoy, that they likely enjoy as well and WANT to talk to you about. Try to relax and enjoy the moment.

  • @Fishie#6916 damn! I should have listened when I had the chance.

    Well, I did my first interview with Ricardo Bare from Arkane Studios in a language that was not my own so first of all: don't be nervous, it will go ok.

    Second, I'd advise, if possible, to exchange some messages with the interviewee before the thing itself. Kind of an out of the box an ice breaker. You'll be able to check how responsive she/he is and get a general impression on what the tone or the focus of the interview should be. Kind of a "read the room first" type of situation.

    If it's your first one, I advise to send your questions beforehand, even if during the interview other stuff comes up and you deviate a bit from the original plans. Sending the questions beforehand helps also because it will make the interviewee more comfortable, will help to earn some trust and, if the questions are interesting or require to go in-depth you will be able to give the person some time to think, and that will translate in better/more interesting answers.

    The "surprise factor" and holding back your questions only really makes sense for investigative journalism or if you are covering some kind of story and you need to stick to your guns, but if you are not doing that, being open will help a lot.

    The most important advice tho is the one @sosadillatron already gave. Be honest, be sincere, earn the trust of the other person. This will go MILES towards she/he opening up to you and putting both of you rowing in the same direction.

    Being nice, polite and earnest will be your greatest assets.

    yeah, all that @sosadillatron advice is good stuff, and basically what I would say alongside that stuff I said in the other thread!

    Point 5 is a tough one for all of us because there's this ingrained sense of wanting to build a rapport with the other person and PROVE to them how much stuff you know, or get them to like you, etc. Most of the time talking for ages about yourself or minutiae does not accomplish this.

    The real way to be a Cool Person in interviews is to ask smart followups based on your knowledge rather than spouting off about things.

    Also just to reiterate point 1 - in the mid-late 2000s I did the first Japanese language interview intended for an English speaking audience with Tetsuya Mizuguchi that had happened in ages. Usually he did his interviews in English and was very vague and hand-wavey. I did this amazing hour-long interview with him in paris only to find out that my recording device (this was back when we used micro tape), while giving the appearance of recording (the spools were moving), was actually only recording one out of every 10 seconds. It was completely useless and the interview is gone forever.

    You don't want that!!!!!!!!!

    @Moon#6930 Only those with email notifications turned on for this thread will know the truth.

    Some advice I can give on top of the excellent tips above…

    1) This applies to any meeting in life: remind yourself of the goal of the meeting/interview before the meeting/interview. This is a simple but important trick to avoid losing track (unconsciously) of the reason you are meeting the other person in the first place. If your meeting is online (most common nowadays), good to have a sheet of paper or post-it with the goal written on it within view.

    2) Avoid as much as possible questions which could be answered with a simple « yes » or « no ». The people you interview might not be that good at promoting themselves or what they do. Being able to get rid of an answer as quickly as possible (consciously or not) with a YES/NO answer is a great escape route for developers, so don’t let them do that.

    3) Sharing your questions beforehand is not compromising with your journalistic integrity. (This is very hard for French journalists to understand.) Most of the people you will talk to are not familiar and not comfortable with being interviewed. This is a dance in which you are together with you interviewée. Providing guidelines regarding what you want to hear about gives your counterpart some time to prepare for the best answer possible.

    4) Think really hard about the question you care about the most, and ask it as early as possible. Two reasons. ① you are not sure how the interview is going to go and you may never have the chance to ask that question. ② almost every time, that question you cared about will end up rewarding you with a disappointing answer (and the best part of the interview will come from an unexpected place). So getting rid of the question early will remove all pressure from the interview and get you looser on the next topics, potentially allowing you to drive a better conversation and get better answers.

    On the notion of (over)studying, there‘s absolutely no harm in being prepared but don’t fall into the trap of over-engineering the questions or focusing on angles that only seem fresh to you because you just finished dissecting a dozen other conversations on the same topic—arm yourself with the knowledge to nudge the conversation in interesting directions or to recognise when a certain statement or reference should be pursued, but keep the questions broad and listen, listen, listen, even if you're being served up boilerplate blather.

    I've seen people go into interviews as if it's their role to grade the interviewee on their own life or something, and unless you evaluate interviews by how many wiki edits they prompt, that approach won't leave you with much to salvage.

    @chazumaru#6995 Glad to see someone agrees with the sharing the questions point I was trying to make. Doing an interview in a way is like writing a script together, you totally want the other person to be on board! And sharing what you would be interested in and allowing the chance to the other person to prepare and try to make the most out of the questions is one of the best ways to allow that to happen.

    The other, more pragmatic reason for delivering questions beforehand is that you simply aren‘t going to get access to certain people if you’re not prepared to let them screen the questions.

    Listen to what they‘re saying, with a purpose. Don’t be afraid of silence. Don‘t be afraid to take a moment of silence between what they say and how you respond, so you aren’t thinking of what you want to say while they're talking.

    Keep a paper and pencil, and take notes; not just on what they've said, but on what you want to talk about. That way you can "remember" while still letting it go so you can _listen_.

    I felt pretty good about my ability to have a conversation like this from having listened to what must be thousands of hours of gaming podcasts.

    @billy#6989 keep it to yerself please

    @Fishie#7070 I'm not one of those people!

    Sharing questions is another case-by-case situation. I personally rarely do, and many of my managing editors aren‘t down with that practice. I don’t want to write an entire game press guide, but one of many things to consider is this: if PR gets use to you letting them screen your questions when times are peaceful and positive, they'll expect that when times are rocky and controversial.

    The relationship you'll have with PR is difficult to describe in one post. It's nuanced. It's kind of a thing that is easier taught in the moment lesson-by-lesson than in a public message board post. You work with PR, but they'll try to get you to let them mold your coverage as much as possible, and you're trying to not let that happen while gaining access to the info you need. Again, when times are mutually great, you'll see no harm in letting them dictate stuff. When it's not so great and you gotta ask hard questions, suddenly that isn't a good way of handling the relationship.

    In most cases, if PR requests my questions, I simply tell them generally what topics I'll likely cover and we'll see where things go. When I have given up questions before hand, it's super special cases or I need their help translating. I've had to decline interviews I would've loved to do over this. Thems the breaks!

    And again, there are different philosophies on this. That's just mine. Good luck!

    @sosadillatron#7080 I should add, my perspective is purely from working freelance for various news/preview/review sites. I don't know what the protocol is if this is for a book or some other product/medium.

    @sosadillatron#7080 For sure, sharing the questions only works if there is a mutual trust and you get the final word in the discussion.

    When it gets to dealing with PR it is a whole different story, sometimes they are very open and you feel like there is no problem at all but if you have to deal with nosy/intrusive PR it can be a pain in the ass. If you are in one of those situations with uncooperative people don't overshare and make your boundaries clear (while also being professional and diplomatic).

    In my example with Arkane the PR person was friends with my interviewee and we had already spoken for a bit before discussing anything about the content, so it made sense to share the questions as a move to reinforce trust and earn some good faith, but this may not be the case always.

    PR as a freelancer can be tricky to deal with.

    I remember 2008 rolled by and suddenly Sega US an Europe became really unresponsive to me which was weird since I had done a ton of well received interviews with SoJ figureheads.

    My next trip to Japan was coming up and I said F them I will get my interviews, showed up unanounced at SoJ and dropped a few names at the reception of people I knew there and sure enough a producer at AM2 came to the reception and was like oh shit Fishie no one told me you were in town.

    I was asked how long I was in Japan for and was given the interviews I wanted.

    Later I found out that the reason Western PR was ignoring me was because the EIC from an outlet I had sold previous Sega interviews to had threatened them because I got the interviews he wanted to at Sega and was not getting.