One of the best tools for capturing great stories is the interview. Whether you’re working on an article, a documentary, a short video, or even a book, the ability to conduct an effective interview will assist you in personalizing your material and gathering exclusive information directly from the source.
When it comes to interviewing subjects in high-level defense and technical fields, you don’t have to be a weapons whiz or techie yourself to get the material you need. Below are the top three tips on prepping for an interview that covers complex material:
1. Consider your goals (and communicate them to the subject)
Just like you wouldn’t launch a communications strategy without knowing your business goals, consider what information you’re looking to gather before you show up to the interview. If you are clear about the material you need to gather to support your project, then you will be able to formulate a comprehensive set of questioning tailored to your subject.
Prepare like you mean it
Defense/high-tech insight: Are you looking to discover how a company's latest program will apply machine-speed processing (AI/ML) to mundane human tasks? In addition to asking direct questions about the program, consider also asking your subject about where the company stands vis-à-vis foreign adversaries who are locked in a fierce artificial intelligence race, or how the company plans to achieve their goals without spooking policymakers worried about robots replacing constituents’ jobs. If you want to cover your bases, you need to ask the subject about both the pros and cons of a new technology, as well as all the key players affected.
When you contact your subject, explain what you’re working on and why you specifically want to interview that person. Share your goal, but not necessarily your interview questions. You want your subject to talk specifically and thoroughly about the topic you’re interested in, but not spit out scripted answers.
2. Research like a pro
Make sure your research is thorough before you come to the show. Avoid asking what the Israeli military calls a “kitbag question” (translation: a very basic question that exposes how tragically clueless you are, i.e. a new soldier skittering around under the weight of his kitbag). If you can find the answer easily on the Internet, it’s probably a kitbag question. Make sure you utilize your time wisely by asking nuanced questions that initiate unique insights.
Defense/high-tech insight: I have found it important to know the parameters of acceptable questions to ask about sensitive programs. You want to push the subject to give you fresh material, but you will look amateurish and potentially put the subject on edge if you pepper them with questions that they legally can’t respond to.
No matter the industry, it’s essential to thoroughly research your subject. This includes researching his background, surveying his online presence, and uncovering where else he has been quoted and on what topics.
For bonus points, check out the subject’s social media pages, especially in the days leading up to the interview. Aside from learning more about your subject’s style and opinions, you might also find something fun to talk about to break the ice at the beginning of the interview.
3. Strategically educate yourself on new topic material
I have interviewed directors of aeronautics programs, CEOs of AI companies, and international experts in hypersonics (talk about pressure…). There was no way I was going to become an expert in any of these topics the night before the interview. If I tried, my head would explode, especially since I’m not a STEM prodigy.
Defense/high-tech insight: So, how do you manage an interview about a complex topic where you’re starting out with little knowledge? Start with familiarizing yourself with the main terms, a general outline of programs and key players, and some basic technology concepts. Even if you’re not an expert in aerothermochemistry or quantum computing, you can Google basic explanations for terms and read whatever the subject has published already on the topic. (At my old job at Lockheed Martin, I would reach out to specialists inside the company ahead of time for a crash course on a topic, before interviewing the subjects themselves.)
You want to ask the right questions, even if they’re a little on the broad side. In case you’re concerned of missing a critical piece of information in the interview, always leave some space at the end for the following question: is there anything I missed that you would like people to know?
I still occasionally ask questions during the interview for clarification. For the most part, though, I do my best to allow the subject to flow with his idea, figuring I can always look up unfamiliar terms later (or email the subject with follow-up questions when crucial).
The bottom line is you can’t be an expert in everything. Just be a tenacious researcher—preferably with well-organized notes... ;-)
Stay tuned for next week’s article, “The Art of the Interview (Part 2),” that will cover how to conduct yourself during showtime to get the material you need.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.