Consider the Interview

Consider the Interview

How to make the most of a valuable resource for speech content.

By Dianne Morr, ATMB

I love to interview all kinds of fascinating individuals. It’s fun to get to know people, and a great way to gather speech material. By learning some simple interviewing techniques, you can draw on other people’s experiences and expertise to add substance to your speeches.

New Toastmasters often worry about finding enough topics to give the 10 speeches that are required to earn the Competent Communicator award. But once you get past your Ice Breaker, you don’t have to solely rely on your personal knowledge and memories for material. You can use the interviewing process. I fell in love with interviews in high school and have enjoyed conducting them ever since.

As a child, I was told that I shouldn’t ask people questions. My mother said it was impolite. So no matter how curious I was, I kept my questions to myself. But in high school I was assigned to be the roving reporter for our school newspaper. Asking questions was my job! What fun. I interviewed everyone from random freshmen to the new principal and that handsome senior actor.

The secret to setting up an interview is this: All you have to do is ask. Most people are flattered by the request. They usually think, “It’s about time someone asked for my opinion!”

This is how you do it: 

Select Your Interview Subject
That’s not difficult – we all know someone who has an interesting story to tell. But if you want to branch out, consider the senior citizens you know or members of your Toastmasters club. If you are lucky, your club might have a member like the late Dorothy Heinz, a longtime member of my former club, the Naperville Toastmasters in Naperville, Illinois. Dorothy delighted us with travelogues of her trips to South Africa, Vietnam and Laos. Equally enthralling were her memories of serving as a U.S. Navy nurse in the South Pacific during World War II, as well as her expertise as a graphologist (handwriting analyst) and palm reader. Interviewing someone like Dorothy is a pleasure and an honor.

If you interview a fellow Toastmaster, don’t simply write down seven minutes of her story and repeat it. You need to make it your own speech by reflecting on what you learned from her and what her wisdom gives to the audience. Use these guidelines for an effective interview:

Consider your current speech project when you choose your interview subject. For Speech 4 in the Competent Communication manual, “How to Say It,” you might look for someone with a story on foreign travel, sports or music that lends itself to colorful vocabulary. For Number 8, “Get Comfortable with Visual Aids,” it would be great to talk to an artist and show examples of his work during your speech. Speech 10, “Inspire Your Audience,” cries out for someone who has acted courageously or inspired you personally.

Explain that you are working on a speech for Toastmasters when asking for the interview. Try to name the specific subject or story that you would like to talk about.

Watch the clock. Ask for a convenient time to interview your subject and be specific about how much time you’ll need. Aim for 30 minutes. If the conversation is flowing and you both have time, you can continue to talk – but a 30-minute commitment is easier to make than an open-ended appointment.

Compose a list of questions, starting with general information and working toward more specific details. Make your questions open-ended. If the questions can be answered with a yes, no or other one-word answer, the interview will be short and possibly wasted. For example, if you ask a photographer, “When did you take up photography?” you may hear, “In high school.” Instead ask, “How did you become interested in photography?” You might hear a story that starts with, “When I was 15, my grandfather showed me pictures he took on a cruise to Alaska. I was amazed by his shots of leaping whales…”

Make it a conversation, not an interrogation. Do you remember playing “20 Questions” on car trips in the days before vans came with video players? That’s not what you are striving for in your interview. Try for some relaxed give-and-take as you talk with your subject.

Listen carefully. Something you hear may spark an excellent follow-up question.

Try not to rush. Allow your subject time to ponder a question – even after answering it. If you pause for a moment, another thought may come to his mind that will offer great insight or fascinating detail.

Take notes, even if you’re recording your interview. Take advantage of free conference call services that are convenient to use and allow you to record your call. You can find them by typing “free conference call” into your Web browser. Even though you’ll have the words recorded, taking notes will help you absorb and remember the high points of your conversation.

At the end of your interview, ask if your subject wants to add anything else. Some of the best responses are to questions you didn’t even ask! I remember interviewing a college football player who surprised me. He said, “I give all the credit for my success to my mother. She raised my brother and me by herself and she is always there for us.” It was such a sensitive and gracious statement to come from a young athlete.

Close by asking your subject for permission to contact them with other questions that may arise while you’re working on your speech. You probably won’t need to do that, but it’s nice to leave the door open.

Always send a thank-you note. Your subject will be delighted to know how much you appreciate the experience.

That’s it! Your interview is done. You’re on your way to writing and delivering your speech, and one step closer to your CC award. And the best part is, you’ve enjoyed a meaningful conversation with a new friend and introduced that person to your Toastmasters club. 

Dianne Morr, ATMB, is a member of Windy City Professional Speakers Toastmasters, in Oak Brook, Illinois. She is a professional speaker and author, and can be reached at