That said, save any potentially contentious questions for the end. In one case, Liebman discovered an ex-husband an actress “had somehow lost along the way,” she said. In case that question blew up the interview, Liebman asked about the missing husband at the very end of the interview—after she’d already gotten the other material she needed.
Make it a conversation, not an interrogation
Elina Shatkin, a Los Angeles-based journalist and radio producer who freelances part-time, has interviewed chefs and celebrities for Q&As in publications including LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and others. She tries to do in-person interviews whenever possible because “it’s a much better way to establish rapport.” But she’ll conduct interviews by phone as necessary.
“I usually prep questions beforehand and have a printed list in front of me, but I may only refer to that list occasionally, ask the questions out of order, or not ask some of them at all, depending on how the conversation goes,” Shatkin said.
That’s key. If the interview is a robotic, check-the-boxes kind of affair, the reader will tune out. So while it’s important to prepare questions beforehand, it’s just as important to let the conversation flow naturally.
In rare cases (like when Shatkin interviewed actor Nick Offerman for The Believer), she’ll bring along a third party to an in-person interview. “Sometimes, the dynamic of a trio helps it feel like a conversation rather than an interrogation,” she said.
Whether you’re interviewing by phone or in person, for a Q&A or any other format, listen carefully to responses so you can ask follow-up questions and get a feel for your subject’s mood. Often, unexpected, pointed follow-up questions lead to the most interesting responses.