I recently had the good fortune to interview an array of extremely interesting people. These people came to me with amazing stories of survival and hope. They were all customers of a mental health service provider and I was asked to interview them and write their stories for a booklet the service provider was creating.

I’m always in awe of people who freely tell their story without a worry of judgment from others. Throughout these interviews I heard stories of abuse, drug and alcohol use, crime, gaol time and ultimately a turning point that meant these people could change their lives.

When I interview people on such sensitive matters I am always super aware of their feelings. Building a rapport when interviewing someone can be difficult particularly if the person is shy or uncomfortable. I always make sure I do the following things to make my interviewees as comfortable as possible.

  • Have the person sit comfortably with you facing you.
  • Be bright and cheery, but not over the top. Gauge your interviewee’s level of energy and try to match it.
  • Have open body language – no folded arms, make sure you lean in, give lots of eye contact and head nodding.
  • When given an answer to a question, respond with an empathetic statement that shows you understand what they mean, such as “Wow that must have been hard for you.”

Once you have built a rapport I find that most interviewees open up and really let you in and want to tell you their story. That’s when nuggets of gold can be found. Interviewing is all about getting someone to allow themselves to drop their guard and show you the real person inside.

Here are some other tips to get the most out of interviewing someone:

Silence is ok – Ask your question and wait. Most people will rush to fill silence and often that is when it great information will all come flowing out.

Be empathic – As I mentioned above, empathy shows you care about not just the story but the person and serves to build a rapport, often leading to the interviewee feeling more comfortable about opening up.

Ask open ended questions – They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?” They’re conversations starters and encourage expansive answers that produce an abundance of information needed to produce a complete and accurate story.

Do your research – Taking the time to get to know your subject before the interview shows them you are interested in them and their story, and often it can lead to an interview where it seems like you are just chatting.

Belinda Galbraith is a Corporate Communications Consultant and Freelance Copywriter based in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales.