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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.

Pre-questions

To get the best answers out of your subject, you’ll want to give them a chance to warm up. Only the most brilliant public speakers can start spouting gems without any prompting. In most cases you’ll want to ask your subject some preliminary questions to get them physically comfortable, comfortable with you, and to get their mental juices flowing.

These questions help tells you what the subject really wants to talk about and it makes them a participant in the process. An interview can feel like an interrogation; this makes it more collaborative.

  • What did you have for breakfast today? (Classic sound test question)
  • 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?

Warming up the subject

I find it takes about 7–10 minutes of talking before your subject is able to articulate clear, honest answers to your deep questions. So I like to ask gentle questions to ease them in. This is also good opportunity to follow tangents which reveal questions you haven’t thought of. I like to ask questions that engage the subject’s senses.

  • 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 a 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 relevant 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, which 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.

Closing questions

It’s useful to think of some questions with a wrap-up feel to bring the interview full circle.

  • 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.

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

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