Content design Storytelling

How to write interview questions

This is an interview guide I wrote for a friend who was interviewing an artist for a radio story. You can use this guide as a primer for any kind of interview because the principles can be applied anywhere.

Have a pre-interview

The pre-interview is an opportunity to ask your subject some preliminary questions to get them physically comfortable, to build some rapport, and to activate their brain.

You can also use this time to find out what subject really wants to talk about. This makes them a participant in the process, rather than the subjectd of an interrogation. Involving them at the outset makes it more collaborative.

  • What did you have for breakfast today? (This is a classic sound test question that just gets them talking)
  • What would you like to make sure we cover in this interview today?
  • What is a question that you wish you were asked more often?
  • Do you have any questions for me before we start?
  • What’s a question you hate being asked?

Warm up the subject

To get the best answers out of your subject, give them a chance to warm up. Only the most brilliant public speakers can unleash gems without any prompting.

I have found it takes about 8.5 minutes of talking a person can begin to form clear, honest answers to your deep questions. I don’t know why, but I can see the change in the subject (and hear the change in their answers) after this point.

Gentle questions can ease them in. This is also good opportunity to follow tangents to uncover questions you haven’t thought of yet. I like to ask questions that engage the subject’s senses.

These are a list of questions used for an interview with a painter.

  • Visual:
    • What does your workspace look like?
    • What is your setting for creating art?
  • Sound:
    • What do you listen to when you paint?
    • What does it sound like when…?
  • Touch/tactile:
    • Can you describe your workspace on a cold day?
    • When you close your eyes…
  • Process and time:
    • Is there a time of day that’s the most inspiring to you?
    • How do you get started when you take on a project?
  • People and relationships1:
    • Who are some sources of inspiration for you?
    • Do you think of your art as speaking to a specific person or people?

Categorize your questions

Divide your list of questions into categories. Conversations are rarely linear, and if your subject veers down a particularly fascinating rabbit hole, you’ll want to follow them. Categories let you easily glance at the headings and find your related questions as your subject moves between topics. This can also help you move back to a topic if you want to revisit something.

What you don’t want to do is bulldoze through your questions in order. This is a common error. You’ll end up missing what the subject is saying because you’re focused on the next question in the list. That’s why I’d even recommend not numbering your questions (use bullets) to really drive the point home.

Ask strong closing questions

Closing questions (with wrapping up tones) signal to the subject that the interview is coming to an end. This is useful because it prompts to subject to bring up topics that they may have forgotten to mention. It also helps put people at ease. Interviews can be stressful(!) and it’s nice to know that the end is in sight.

  • Ask future-looking questions:
    • What are you looking forward to in…
    • What’s next for you…
    • Can you share a wish for the future?
  • Ask questions that make them think laterally:
    • What else are you working on?
    • What’s something else you are thinking about?
    • Where do other people in your position go after this?
  • Give them ways to connect to your audience:
    • How can people reach you or find you online?
    • What is something you’d like our audience to know/do?
  • Ask them a blank slate question2:
    • Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share before we close the interview? Take a minute if you like.

Summary

How to write interview questions

A guide for asking good questions in interviews

  1. Have a pre-interview
  2. Warm up the subject
  3. Categorize your questions
  4. Ask strong closing questions

  1. This gets your subject thinking about relationships. It’s a rich vein.↩︎

  2. Another way to invite your subject to cocreate the experience.↩︎


Storytelling


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