There will likely come a point at somewhere in your blogging life where you'll want to interview a chef, a farmer, a cookbook author or a food artisan. This week we give you some basic interview tips to help keep you from being tongue tied when it's time to sit down face to face!
As food bloggers, we’re aces at telling first-person stories.
But sometimes we may want or need to tell others’stories on our blogs, be it a favourite cookbook author or chef, a farmer or food artisan. We can easily do a Google search for the Wikipedia entry or latest story to put in our own words and call it a post, but why not sit down with that person for an interview?
If you’ve never done a formal interview before, the prospect can seem nerve-wracking, particularly if it’s with someone you admire. Hey, I’ve been doing this 15 years but (Nerd Alert!) I still got starstruck and tongue-tied when I met Lloyd Robertson.
Knowing how to interview is as important a tool to have in your food blogging arsenal as a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Ultimately, the point of an interview is to glean information that you can weave into a story for your readers, so once you’ve hammered out a date to sit down with your favourite gourmand, keep these tips in mind to make the experience one you’ll want to repeat.
Do Your Research
There’s a good chance you’ve already pored over every word ever written about or by this person, especially if you’re a fan. If not, this is the time to do it. Know as much about your subject as possible because your knowledge will be an ice breaker with that star chef. She’ll see you’re truly interested and not doing the story because you have to. Even better, find that one obscure fact and watch as the walls come down.
Determine Your Hook or Focus
Why are you interviewing that artisanal cheesemaker anyway? Has he just opened a storefront or released a new unripened goat cheese? Something timely is a great hook, or focus, of your interview and makes coming up with questions easy because you have something specific to ask about. If there isn’t anything timely related to your story, no worries. Perhaps a hook will become apparent during your research. Maybe you and your favourite cookbook author are both passionate about food security. If so, you have your focus.
Open-ended Questions Are Your Friends
The five W’s are the basis for formulating questions but those starting with why, how, or describe for me…will get you more than one-word answers. They lead the interviewee into telling a story that will net delicious quotes around which to build your post. That said, closed-ended questions come in handy when you need a direct answer. Do you really enjoy eating offal? There’s only one answer to that question.
One At a Time, Please
It’s easy to throw out multiple questions at once, particularly if you don’t have your questions written down (hint: write them down!). It’s called the double-barrelled question and inevitably, one part —usually the first question —will be forgotten as your favourite farmer gives you the goods for the second question. Remember to ask one question at a time.
There Are No Silly Questions
Sometimes the silliest sounding questions get you the best answers. I covered agriculture for eight years at daily newspapers. That meant eight years of stories on the same harvests. By year three, it was tough to write ‘Hooray, it’s raspberry season!’ in a new way. I remember one time after asking a farmer about the growing season, the newsroom fell silent as I blurted out, “Tell me how you feel about the raspberry?” Ridiculous, right? My co-workers totally mocked me when I got off the phone. But I got the best answer: my farmer would walk a mile for a raspberry, never for a strawberry. There was my lead and a great quote.
Deviate, If Need Be
Life is good if you have your list of questions. You aren’t married to it, though. So when you’re interviewing someone, which is really just a conversation, listen closely. Your neighbourhood brewmaster may have told you something surprising. Latch on and pursue it further with more questions. You’ll always have that original question list to come back to if it goes nowhere. If it goes somewhere, you may have a story no one else has.
Face Time Is Fun Time
Meet your interview in person. You’ll get more colour and build rapport. Maybe your favourite chef loves wearing pink Pumas in the kitchen. Perhaps that winemaker has ordered an oatmeal stout when you thought he’d go for a Cab Franc. Readers love that stuff because it gives them a better sense of who this person is. Those are things you only see, however, when you meet in person.
People are also more likely to open up to someone whose body language they can see. If meeting in the flesh isn’t in the cards, do a phone interview. You’ll hear tone, which provides cues to you as an interviewer. Avoid email, if possible. Answers tend to be over-edited, and aren’t candid. They often require followup for clarification or more detail.
To Record or Not to Record?
I don’t record an interview unless it’s with a fast talker (literally and figuratively), or I’m writing a controversial story where sources might deny saying something. Otherwise, taking notes makes you a better listener and helps you as the writer separate the wheat from the chaff. Transcribing recorded interviews isn’t like watching paint dry. It’s like peeling wallpaper, then watching paint dry. If you feel most comfortable with a recorder, use it, but take notes at the same time. Mark time codes or key words to quickly find the good parts later on. This also ensures you got something down in case technology fails you (dead batteries or accidentally hitting delete do happen). Take lots of pens with you.
Talk to Me: The Basics of Interviewing was written by Tiffany Mayer. Tiffany is a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at eatingniagara.com.
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