Q and A

My husband, a professional writer, insists that the hardest type of article to write is the question-and-answer interview (or Q&A). (And that comes from a guy who’s been a writer and editor for just about every national business magazine.)

Q&As are challenging enough for journalists, but they’re even more difficult in employee communication, where egos and approval processes get in the way. And there’s nothing more boring than a long, detailed, narcissistic question-and-answer article.

How, then, can you do them well? Keep the following 5 rules in mind:

  1. Make it short. Even shorter. Shorter still.  Even if you're obsessed with the subject matter, or are fascinated by the person you are talking to (Hello, Bradley Cooper) a shorter article will trump a longer one every time. You never want to wear out your welcome.
  2. Focus, focus, focus. The easiest way to keep things short is to concentrate on one particular aspect of the subject at hand. How did the idea come about, for example? What has the person learned from the experience? Here, for example, is a terrific Boston Globe series called The VIP Lounge, where comedians Lenny Clarke and Dane Cook are interviewed about travel.
  3. Ask unexpected questions. The focus of the piece is not you, but the person you are talking to. And the offbeat unexpected question (that is on topic) will trump the traditional one every time. Surprising questions have two benefits: They stimulate the interviewee to give more interesting answers and, when the interview is published, they encourage people to keep reading.
  4. Vary the pace. If an answer has to be long, follow it with a short one (like this).
  5. Edit the heck out of it.  Yes, you are going to transcribe the interview. But no, you don’t need to run it verbatim. Unless you are talking to Winston Churchill (a neat trick) the person on the other side of the desk isn’t likely to speak in pithy quotes. You don’t put words in their mouth. But you do splice together their best stuff.  (If that makes you nervous, just follow the lead of publications like The New York Times. When a conversation is shortened, there’s a disclaimer: “This interview has been edited and condensed.”)

Q&As are hard. These ideas will make them easier.

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