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The art of the interview: Crafting conversations for personality profiles

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BY TOM KEER

In the outdoor world, Lee and Tiffany Lakosky are about as hot as fish grease. Their show, “The Crush: Lee and Tiffany,” documents their hunting pursuits, management practices and conservation ethics. Media outlets interview them constantly, so much so that social media sites are cluttered with scandals and other prattle. I was interviewing them for a cover story for USA Today’s Hunt and Fish magazine, and I wanted to make sure it popped.
But when we got on the phone, they routinely offered answers to questions they thought I would ask. Following their lead would produce content similar to everything that was already written, so I changed the game.
“Did either of you play sports in high school?” I asked.
“Uh, yeah, but what does that have to do with the show?”
“Not much, but before we get into the show I want to get to know you both. You know, what life for you both was like pre-show.”
A wonderful series of conversations (not interviews) followed over the next few months, and we forged a great working relationship that allowed me to write a story full of information readers couldn’t find elsewhere.
With print, digital and video audiences craving personal, behind-the-scenes information, there is an increasing demand for personality profiles. These types of stories are a little different than our normal assignments, and that means to craft them we need to tap into some different skill-sets.

  • Listen Up

Great interviews are a direct result of good listening skills. The technical questions which answer the who, what, where and when questions are important, but if that is the thrust of your interview your story will be topical at best. Rapid-fire question and answer sessions begets a disjointed interview, one which covers too much ground.
The magic lies not in what is said, but what is implied. Facial expressions, voice inflections, pauses and reflections reveal deeper, emotional connections than what might be found in just the verbal answer. Unearthing the emotional sentiment provides outstanding content in an interview.

  • The most important question

I recently read an interview that felt mechanical. My feeling was that the questions were pre-scripted, and that charted course was followed to the letter. The result was a call-and-response function; who, what, where and when, omitting the most important question: Why.
Why answers the underpinning of the subject’s decisions. Let’s say someone retires from a big-city career and launches a hunting lodge late in life. We can talk about the acres, the game and the local airport. But the question of “why” is the most important and also the most interesting. Of all the things the owner could do in retired life, why open a hunting lodge? Why not just go hunting? Why not travel the world in search of exotic species? The answers to these questions reveal the subject’s passion and makes them come to life as real people to whom we can connect.

  • Formality and Freedom

The balance between formality and freedom is important. If you allow someone the opportunity to free associate you’ll get lots of interesting musings that are tough to assemble in a meaningful way. Too much structure begets boring content. Pull your subject in a direction and let him drift. Sometimes it’s worth letting the subject take you in a different direction, but when the drift is too significant to be relevant to your goals, rein him in. As trolling motors are bow mounted (it is easier to pull a chain than to push one), so are good interviews.

  • Time and Follow Up

Some great writing comes in a flash, while other pieces take time. Either way, allow time to rest your work. Time adds unparalleled perspective gained only when a writer is not under deadline constraints. Some time delays confirm a sound direction or they suggest a different tack. Answers to secondary and tertiary questions add an essential depth.
So after a fermentation and maturation process, revisit your subject in a follow up interview or three. The odds of both of you arriving at a “you know, I remembered something that might be of interest” is high. Parts you may have considered scrap frequently emerge as the core of the story. The process is like eating an artichoke; we remove the layers to arrive at the meat.
Writing a great interview requires time and patience, so carefully choose a subject.Then go watch Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn’s “Roman Holiday” before you conduct an interview. Whether or not you follow through and publish your piece, the intimacy generated through time together yields impeccable fruit. ♦
– Tom Keer is an award-winning writer who lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Keer writes regularly for over a dozen ourdoor magazines and owns The Keer Group, a full-service, outdoor marketing company. Visit www.thekeergroup.com or at
www.tomkeer.com

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