How to Interview

Interview is a conversation with a person potentially interesting to the audience. The interviewer asks questions, and the interviewee answers. You can imaginary distinguish two sub-formats of the interview: a story and a discussion.

The first one shows the new and previously unknown side of the person. Such an interview does not have to be in a Q&A format. It is also easy to read in the form of monologue.

Raw

— What department did you go to?

— It was computer science department.

— Did you like it there?

— The professors were good, but the program is outdated, I often had to look for info on my own.

— Is that why you quit?

— Yes.

— When was that?

— 2007

Refined

— I was in the department of computer science. I liked the prefessors, but the program was outdated and I often had to look for info on my own. So in 2007, I dropped out of the university.

In the second format, the key thing is to look at the known facts from a new perspective, to reflect on and to test its strength. In this case only the Q&A format will work.

— People say that your code is not the one you can be proud of.
— But we write and we are proud, and we don't f*** around.

Preparation

You have to prepare for both options in its own way. 

In the first case it's better to make an approximate core of the story from what you've managed to learn about your speaker and to imagine the best way the person can tell the story. Having this core it is easier to come up with questions.

In the second case you should study everything too, but you're looking not for a new story, but for weaknesses in the known facts. Here you need not only questions that move the story forward and cover the blind spots, but also provocative talking points with a question mark.

— Tesla is crap, and Musk is lying to us. What do you think?
— I don't think I'm hitting the ass.

There's a powerful type of question that you'd better be careful with — mental experimentation. It allows the speaker to fantasize, reflex and expose. But not everybody likes it — either answering such questions or reading such interviews.

— And what if the world had developed in such a way that social services and photo apps did not bring money — what would you do?
— Whatever brings them.

Talk

It's better to record a conversation on two devices so there's always a backup. 

Perfect pace: one narrative and two clarifying questions.

— Tell me about the idea of a quantum coagulator for flea udders. (moves the speaker further along the story)
How's it even set up? (stops and asks to spell out)
— Why fleas and not seals? (and a little more details, but not getting carried away)

If questions become irrelevant during the conversation, throw them away in process. If there are new ones it is better to write them down quickly while you listen to the answer and ask later so as not to interrupt. Or when it's more appropriate. If you suddenly feel a sympathy for the speaker during the conversation and no longer want to ask uncomfortable question, you should slap yourself right away and ask it anyway.

Editing

The transcript has to be taken apart and reassembled. The text should have a linear sequence, a collection of all thoughts in their places and no repetitions. Each topic stems from the previous one.

Raw

  • 5 mins on product;

  • 1 min on wonderful people who created it;

  • 6 mins on studentship;

  • 3 mins on how to hire developers;

  • 2 mins on that cool product feature;

  • the history of the product invention, 3 mins;

  • one more minute on wonderful people;

  • cool story from studentship, 1 min;

  • more 10 minutes on product;

  • remembered one more life-hack for hiring developers, 30 seconds.

Refined

  • cool story and the reflection on the whole studentship, 7 mins;

  • the story of how the product was invented, 3 mins;

  • 17 minutes about the product and its features;

  • 2 minutes on wonderful people who created it;

  • 3,5 minutes for hiring life-hacks.

The beginning should be as close to the point of the conversation as possible. No greetings, introductory questions or expositions. Everything the reader needs to know before the interview is great to put into the lead. It is totally acceptable, fancy and OK to begin the interview as if the reader joined the conversation a couple of minutes after the start. It's like Jack London.

Raw

— Hi, thanks for agreeing to talk with us.

— No problem, my pleasure.

— First tell the Habr readers who you are?

— I'm Batman.

— Wow, cool.

— Yeah!

— So how did you become Batman?

— When I was 9 a mugger killed my parents right in front of me.

Refined

We talked to Batman, he's cool.

<cut/>

— When I was 9 a mugger killed my parents right in front of me.

If during the assembly and disassembly of the text some fragment doesn't not fit into the architecture and interfere with the narrative, rewrite speaker's words and put the side story in the special text box.

The ending as well as the beginning should be free of colloquial garbage like 'Goodbye' and 'Thanks for the conversation'.

When the architecture is ready, you can move on to cosmetics.

Author's questions should be short, no more than one line. It is necessary to get rid of any hooey.

Raw

— Take your company for example: you say that you have grown three hundred thousand times and written a billion thousand lines of code in six months. But how would you describe your feelings while that had been happenning? How did you manage to do that? How did you grow up and not burst? How did you even do that? Tell me about it, huh? How did you manage to grow up?

Refined

— How did you cope with 300,000 times growth and not burst?

It is also better to split double questions.

Raw

— How did it all began? And how did it end up?

— Good and bad.

Refined

— How did it all began?

— Good.

— And how did it end up?

— Bad.

There is no need to fight cruelly with the vocabulary — it's up to speaker what words to pick. But you can remove unnecessary parts of the speech, correct inversions and reassemble the narrative chronology.

Raw

— Well, if you talk about funny stories, I can tell you one. I was fired for a module that had disconnected half of Moscow from electricity. I used to be doing quite nicely, but now I'm a bum. I used to work in a service that watches everyone. I was doing the best I could. I wrote the module, and you know there was no one to ask for help or advice. And I was just a junior back then. The module was running and no one found the memory leak. Well, the energy started to be consumed way over the top. Because the module was controlling all the cameras. And the overvoltage happened. That's it.

Refined

— There's a funny story that happened to me. I was a junior in a surveillance service. I was doing quite nicely, but one day I got a task to write a module that was used in all the security cameras. There was no one to ask for help or advice, so I figured it out my own way.

When the module started, there was a memory leak in it and the cameras began to burn energy over the top. This caused an overvoltage which knocked out electricity in half of Moscow.

After that I was fired, and I've been a bum ever since.

Formatting

Each line starts with a long dash, and questions are highlighted in bold.

If there are several speakers in the interview it's better to mark the names as follows:

Bill Gates (@username1): There are a lot of us here, we will answer one at a time.
Tim Cook (@username2): Heh-heh.
BG: What's so funny?

Approval

The interviewee is considered to be the co-author of a Q&A material and his/her agreement for publication is required.

And besides, it is just common sense, good tone and common practice. If you treat the speakers' words rather freely, it is better to show them the result before publication. But requests to rewrite, change the meaning, smooth the wording and everything like that should be rejected till the last breath. The only thing you should correct without a peep is factual inaccuracies.

Often it is not the actual speaker who deals with coordination, but PR service. Here's how you can convince PR, if they are trying to add to the text imaginary facts, or vice versa — to throw something away:

  • explain that the PR department is not allowed to overwrite the text — it is considered as an infringement of your copyright and their boss;

  • to fight for facts use a simple argument — that's what your boss said, but this did not;

  • explain they can't throw away questions, because it is an editorial copyright.

Approve on the interview itself, and not the intro or the headline.