No matter the type of interview — for a magazine article, for a podcast, for a documentary film, or for entree onto Ira Glass’s private island — a good interview feels natural, like a great conversation. Interviews are all about making the guest feel relaxed — as a general rule, the more comfortable your interviewee is the more they’ll be willing to reveal. And the goal of any interview is to get the guest to reveal something nobody has heard before.
Easier said than done, right? Not everyone is naturally engaging, especially when you shove a microphone in their face. Asking the right interview questions can often be the difference between a revealing interview and an awkward or stilted one.
Coming into an interview prepared with the right questions can you get what you need from your guest — but that doesn’t mean you have to stick to the script. Here are our tips for writing interview questions that will let you squeeze the best answers from your interviewee.
1. Do your research
Again, the goal of every interview should be to get the guest to reveal something new. So the most important step of the interview process is researching them. Look into their work, their life; read, listen to, and watch other interviews they’ve done so you can be sure to elicit something different. If the person you’re interviewing recently wrote a book or released a film, familiarize yourself with it so that you can discuss it.
2. Know what you want to get out of it
After you’ve brushed up on everything they’ve said and that’s been said about your guest, ask yourself, what do I still want to know? What questions have yet to be asked? Or thoroughly answered? As you start writing your interview questions, make getting those answers your goal, and keep it front-and-center. Taking time to name your objective will help you write questions that achieve it. Keep the interviewee’s objectives in mind, too. Are they there to promote new work? Remember, it’s a transaction — you’re giving them something (exposure, promotional time, etc.) in exchange for them sharing something your audience cares about.
The goal of every interview is to get the guest to reveal or share something nobody has ever heard. That’s the kind of thing that will get your podcast noticed, whether the guest is a big celebrity in their world or a relative unknown. — Brandon Copple, producer & host, Creativish
3. Start with a question that introduces your guest
Your first question or two will set the tone for the whole interview, so try to ask something that elicits some background information to give context to the interviewee and the interview itself. Rather than asking your interviewee to give their job description, get creative. Ask an astronomer how they would explain their work to an extraterrestrial lifeform or a ballet dancer how they’d describe their life to a 9-year-old ballerina. A good fallback is to give their job title, then ask them to describe a typical workday.
4. Ask questions you want to know the answers to
Set the tone and show your by indulging your curiosity and ask questions that go beyond what others have asked. After soaking up everything about them, what do you still want to know? What about this person inspires you? Ask about the mistakes they made while doing something you like, or what helped them overcome a challenge that you face, too. Your own genuine interest will prompt interesting personal interview questions, energize the conversation, and make things more compelling for your audience.
5. Avoid yes-or-no questions
If you ask a question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” answer, you risk not learning anything new. Open-ended questions will get a better answer because they give your interviewee the space to answer the way they want. Remember your interrogative pronouns and ask who? what? when? where? why? and how? Instead of “Did you always want to be an actor?” ask “What sparked your love of acting?” or “When did you first know you wanted to be an actor?”
Try to get them to tell stories, and let them tell them on their own terms. A simple “what happened?” can elicit all sorts of interesting insights. The phrase “tell me about…” signals you want to hear their perspective. Getting them talking like this can reveal all sorts of new details and information that you can then follow up on.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask the dumb questions
Not everyone in your audience will be on the same level of familiarity with your interviewee or have their expertise. If they get in the weeds or use some industry jargon, ask “what does that mean?” to get a more straightforward answer. This has the additional benefit of putting the interviewee in a position of knowledge, which can make them feel more at ease. Be sure to intersperse these with more probing and complex questions, otherwise, your interview may become too simple and boring.
7. Plan your follow-up questions
Follow-ups are indispensable in a good interview. By asking clear, specific questions and simple follow-ups, you can usually avoid long-winded answers that knock the discussion off course. Follow-ups also help you and your guest reflect upon and analyze their answers. Try a simple “how?” or “tell me more,” anytime you want to dig deeper into an idea. You don’t necessarily have to list follow-ups when writing your interview questions, but it can help you stay organized if you at least mark the spots you think will benefit from extra questioning.
8. Give them the wheel
Cap off your interview by asking “is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to talk about?” This works in a variety of interview situations and ensures that your interviewee gets to accomplish their own goal for the interview. You never know what little nuggets of information your guest hasn’t had a chance to reveal.
As a courtesy to your guest and a service to your audience, it can be helpful to also ask for actionable information, like “how can readers or listeners follow your work online?”
5 tips for a successful interview
Once you’ve figured out how to write good questions and drawn up a list in preparation, there are a few things you should do to make sure the interview is a success.
Be professional. Be timely and thoughtful when communicating with your interviewee. Send them calendar invites for important related dates, and be on time for the interview itself. This shows that you respect them and the time they’re taking to be interviewed by you.
Check all your equipment twice. Make sure any recording equipment you plan to use is working and has enough battery life and storage space for your needs. Having an equipment failure in the middle of a good interview is embarrassing and takes up the precious time you have with your interviewee.
Put your guest at ease. Chat with your interviewee a bit to help them relax. Explain your interview process to them so that they know what to expect.
Let it flow, and go along. An interview is a conversation, not an interrogation, and sometimes the best stuff comes when the discussion goes in unexpected directions. Remember, the goal is to get something new from them — so if they start talking about something you’ve never heard them talk about, see where it goes.
Shut up. Try to keep your questions succinct, and make sure you don’t ramble when you ask questions or react to your guest. It’s okay to talk to provide context or perspective. But let your guest dominate the conversation — listeners want to hear from them, not you.
Silence is power. Silence never feels comfortable, but unless you’re live streaming, you can easily edit it out. If you let a pause linger, your interviewee might use it to work out a better answer to a question, or rush to fill it with information — maybe more than they meant to reveal.