It sounds easy in theory. One person interviews someone – at a conference, perhaps, or just in a meeting – then they pass over the notes to a writer to use as the source for an insightful and intelligent article.
But the reality it quite different. There’s a reason Oprah Winfrey and Michael Parkinson succeeded where so many failed. Interviewing is a very specific skill.
Interviewing isn’t the same as chatting to your friend over drinks. You have to dig deep, think quickly on your feet as the interview is progressing, and often ask the interviewee to clarify their point – repeatedly. Like Jeremy Paxman, but friendlier.
Writing an article from a third-party interview can be like the traditional children’s game of Chinese whispers (with apologies to anyone from China – I didn’t make up the name). Third-hand information is never as good as first-hand.
Obstacle 1: the amateur interviewer
An interview is like a dance. While you might know the basic steps before you start, the best dancers can also improvise, add flair and style, and go in an entirely different direction than they started if it suits the song.
But that level of expertise doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of practice to learn to tango like a pro. An amateur interviewer rarely does enough research beforehand, and they are too uncomfortable going off-script.
You need to be prepared to ask probing questions – in a nice way – and to press the interviewee for clarification if you aren’t 100% sure you understand what they mean.
But the untrained person fears going off-script, particularly if the interviewee has asked to see the questions beforehand.
This means they often miss the most interesting insights, the nuggets that can really lift a story from dull to inspirational.
Obstacle 2: lack of trust
It’s much easier to get to know someone one-on-one and to strike up rapport with them. This allows for a more natural flow of conversation and a higher level of trust.
But when you’re writing up an article based on someone else’s interview, you don’t have the interviewee’s trust. When you go back to them with queries, they are less likely to be as revealing and open with you as they would with the person they spoke directly with.
This is understandable – but it’s undesirable if the goal is a high-quality article.
The alternative is that you pass your queries through a third party, but so often, queries need teasing out, yet again, you’re in the world of Chinese whispers, where you have to ask the middle-person to keep going back to the interviewee for an explanation.
This makes all parties uncomfortable, and they feel that someone else is looking over their shoulder all the time, which can lead to bland replies rather than interesting ones.
Obstacle 3: too many cooks in the kitchen
Anyone who has prepared a dinner will know exactly why this aphorism exists. Everyone has their own idea about how the final dish should look, taste and smell, and if too many people get involved, you tend to end up with a mess that pleases nobody.
The same is true for an article. The more people involved in the creation and editing, the blander the results tend to be as everyone takes issue with everyone else’s comments or ideas, and so ultimately, most of the interesting insights get removed completely.
This is less likely to happen with a one-to-one situation. The interviewer and interviewee will both have their own goals for the article, but between them, they can usually talk through to an outcome that works for both. When you add in a third person – and quite often a fourth, fifth and sixth as, for some reason, adding in a third person always seems to add in extras – then the goals are slightly different, which typically means the results get watered down.
The result? A bland article that adds little of value and doesn’t achieve anyone’s objectives.
How to get around this
Despite the pitfalls, it’s not impossible to write insightful articles based on third-party interviews. It just takes a lot more time and teamwork. Instead of one person researching, writing and liaising with one other person, you have to allow additional time throughout the process.
Writing an article this way tends to take at least twice as long as if it was just a one-to-one situation. The more people involved, the more time it takes at every stage.
You need to work closely together with everyone involved, and if the writer is given direct access to the interviewee, that can help. And just allow more time overall – and add in an extra large dose of patience – and you should be able to create something useful and insightful that will achieve your objective.