Interviews are the best way to collect information fast. They work for any kind of writing, although a lot depends on the interviewee.

As a freelance journalist I interview people every day.

Interviews work because other people’s words are livelier and more interesting than descriptive prose.

Most interviews go well. The best interviewees know their stuff and express clear ideas. They sound human. That is, they talk like real people using everyday language.

Some interview subjects are anything but human. They sound like robots.

Nervous interviewees hide behind jargon and officialese.  They feel safer that way or they think it makes them sound smarter. They may not be confident using their own words.

Another reason is media training. Some interviewees learn or prepare canned statements designed to stay on message. Sometimes a communications professional is standing in the wings.

They sound like they are reading from a prepared document. Sometimes they are.

I’ve three ways to help interviewees sound human:

  1. Let the interviewee get the canned statements off their chest first. Take notes – this could be all you get. Then ask them questions which get them to say the same things again. They are more likely to speak like humans second-time around. If this doesn’t work, I’ve found even Daleks run out of resistance when you go back for a third try.
  2. Play dumb, get them to explain jargon. Some interviewers fear this because they worry it makes them look stupid. Don’t worry; you’ll look smart when your copy explains a difficult idea in plain English. If it still bothers you, say: “I understand what it means, but my readers aren’t familiar with the term”.
  3. Put them at ease. Often interview subjects are tense before the interview. Often they relax once they think they delivered the key message in corporate language. When this happens, chat about their words, go over points – but keep your eyes and ears open. If you use a microphone leave it running.Once the show is over, interview subjects become human again. I’ve had interviews where the best words came riding down in the lift or even while unlocking my car to drive home.


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