Better Interview Questions

By Ben Baker

Writing the story is only part of the process. You have to get information first.

If you interview enough people, sooner or later you will come across someone who replies to everything in monosyllables, grunts, and short sentences that give you the very barest minimum of facts. No matter how good your initial questions are, in order to get into the subject and really bring out details, you will have to have great follow up questions to draw information out of the subject.

A few notes about the following list: Not all questions are suitable for all interviews. Some questions refer to jobs, some refer to activities like hobbies. Some questions can be used for either. In most cases the word “field” is used to represent profession, activity, hobby, etc. Some questions don’t have anything to do with an activity; they just seek personal information. This is not an unabridged list. A good interviewer will find launching points for questions which could not possibly be anticipated.

Without further ado, here is a list of common interview questions (Q) with some follow-up (F) questions that will help you get more if your subject doesn’t give you a lot of information.

Q – Who are your inspirations or heroes?

F – Why do they inspire you?

F – What makes them heroic in your eyes?

F – What effect do they have on you?

F – When did you first learn about them?

F – Who told you about them?

F – What have learned about them since first learning of them?

F – How have you applied what you learned from them?

F – How can other people see your heroes/inspirations in you?

F – What do you do to be more like your heroes/inspirations?

Q – Married?

If “yes,” then:

F – How did you and spouse meet?

F – How long married?

F – What first attracted you to your spouse?

F – Does your spouse help in your field? If yes, then how?

F – Do you help your spouse in spouse’ field? If yes, then how?

F – Children? Grandkids?

F – Want to have kids?

F – Do you want to see your children do the same thing? Why or why not?

If “no,” then:

F – Ever been married?

F – Ever been engaged?

F – Ever wanted to be married?

F – Kids?

F – Want to have kids?

F – Do/Would you want to see your children do the same thing? Why/Why not?

(Note – if the person is biologically incapable of having kids, ask about adoption.)

Q – Are you involved in your community where you live?

F – What do you do?

F – Anything you’d like to do in your community which you have not yet done? Why?

Q – Where would you most like to visit?

F – Have you been there? If yes, what was the best part of it? If no, then will you ever go?

F – If you go back, what would you do that you haven’t done?

F – What makes it a good place to visit?

F – If you recommended this place to someone who’s never been there, what should they do first?

F – What surprised you about this place?

Q – Have any hobbies?

F – How did you get started in the hobby?

F – Why do you keep doing it?

F – What have learned through your hobby?

F – Why would other people enjoy doing it?

F – What’s a good way to get started in the hobby?

(NOTE: If possible, ask to see the person’s hobby. This could be the picture you need for the article, the person and hobby)

Q – Where did you grow up?

F – Did you move around a lot? If yes, how did this affect you? If no, how did the stability of living in one place all your life affect you?

F – What did you enjoy most about where you grew up?

Q – Are there any political or social issues you feel passionately about? (If you can’t get a story’s worth of information out of this line of questioning, you have GOT to be interviewing a corpse!)

F – Why are these things important to you?

F – What do you for these causes?

F – How can someone else get involved in these issues?

F – How much of your time do these causes take up?

F – Have you ever considered taking on these causes as a full-time occupation?

F – What would you most like to do that could further these causes?

Q – Do you have a nickname?

F – How’d you get it?

F – Do you like it?

F – Ever given someone else a nickname?

F – Did they like it?

Q – What is your favorite (book, movie or play, quote, poem, website, type of food or individual dish, music genre, song, band or individual musician, perfume, clothing style or designer, etc.)?

F – Why?

F – What drew you to this?

F – Where can other people find this?

Q – Why do you do what you do? (e.g., Why do you write? Work on cars? Race horses? Fish? Run marathons? Annoy politicians?)

F – How did you get started?

F – Who helped you get started?

F – How did they help you?

F – If you couldn’t do this, what would you do?

F – Why?

F – Would you be as happy?

F – Would you recommend (what the person does) to someone else?

F – Why?

F – What do they need to do to be successful at (whatever the person does)?

With these next follow-ups, you made need to insert some detailed specifics.

F – What would you change about (whatever the person does)?

Here, if the person says nothing, you may need to dip deeper into the subject. Ask about particulars. Referring back to the main question which spawned these follow-ups, you’d as a writer if he enjoys editing, research, writer’s block, finding a market for the work, the pay for the work. With cars, you might ask if the person enjoys having to dispose of used oil, getting greasy, scraping knuckles in hard-to-get-at places. With horses you might ask about the work which goes into horses, shoveling manure, brushing hide, filing hooves, buying feed, vet bills. If the person fishes, ask about the cost of maintaining a boat, lures, other fishermen, cleaning and cooking fish, driving to places to fish. On marathons you could ask about entry fees, cost of running shoes, the kind of surfaces the person runs over, running in different kinds of weather, trying to break through a pack, the Wall. Annoying politicians is my personal hobby and the only thing I’d change about it is having more time to annoy them.

F – Why would you change it?

F – How would changing that affect what you do?

F – Does that change make sense and really need to be done?

F – Why or why not?

Q – Is there anyone in (whatever the person does) you admire? (NOTE: This series could have been addressed in the first set, but there’s no guarantee it was so addressed. A hero may not be the same as someone who is admired.)

F – Why?

F – What do you admire most about that person?

F – Do you know this person?

F – Has this person had any influence on you?

F – Has this person ever given you advice?

F – What was the advice?

F – Was it good advice?

F – If so did you take the advice? Why or why not?

F – How did you apply the advice?

F – Is it good advice for anyone interested in (whatever that person does)?

Q – How have things changed?

F – Have any of the changes surprised you?

F – Were there any changes you expected?

F – How have you incorporated the changes?

F – Were the changes good or bad?

F – Why?

F – If you could, would you change it back? Why or why not?

F – What does the future hold?

Q – What sets you apart from the competition?

F – Have you learned anything from the competition?

F – What do you think the competition has learned from you?

Q – What training do you have?

F – Have you ever taught classes/seminars in your field? If so, where?

F – How often do you go to seminars/classes?

F – Have you ever wanted to be a professional teacher in this field? Why or why not?

F – Where is the best place to go to learn about your field?

F – Did your training prepare you for everything you’ve had to deal with? If not, what didn’t it cover? How did you handle it?

F – Do you need formal training for the work?

F – If you could tell people entering this field about something school did not teach them, what would it be?

Q – What honors have you received?

F – How did you feel about receiving the award(s)?

F – Have you ever recommended someone else for honors?

F – Have you ever delivered honors to someone else?

F – Are honors important? Why?

F – If you didn’t have the chance to receive honors, would you continue to do what you do?

Q – Are you involved in any of the field’s groups and associations?

F – What are they?

F – Any you would like to join but haven’t? If so what are they? Why haven’t you joined?

F – What group(s) would you recommend to a beginner? Why?

F – Have the group(s) helped you? How?

F – Have you made significant contributions to the group(s)? What?

F – How has your contribution affected things?

F – If you could make a lasting contribution, what would it be

Ben Baker has been a writer for longer than he wants to think about. He’s interviewed people ranging from garbage truck drivers to world-famous celebrities and he still can’t remember every question he needs to ask. You can find Ben Baker’s books on Amazon, and he blogs at Pork Brains And Milk Gravy.