Key takeaways in this post:

  • Set your interview up for success by doing your homework and easing into the conversation.
  • Be authentic, frame questions properly and restate what was said for clarity.
  • Reassure your interviewee and following up to say thank you.

As healthcare content creators, our interviews with patients and providers may not get the attention of Oprah’s celebrity conversations. But we can still use these tips to interview like Oprah and get valuable information and quotes from patients and subject matter experts (SMEs).

Over 17 million people watched Oprah’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in March of 2021. Who else in the world would the Duke and Duchess have been willing to talk to on camera for two hours? The interview received an Emmy nomination — Oprah’s tenth. Just another jewel in the crown for the queen of interviewing, Oprah Winfrey.

While our interview subjects may not have the name recognition of royalty, every person has a unique story to tell and insight to share.

And we can learn a lot from Oprah on how to draw more interesting information from our subjects. Her techniques can bring out the golden nuggets to bring the content we produce alive for our readers. When we speak with a patient about their experience or a physician about their care, it’s a rich opportunity to discover something beyond the facts and figures. The result is communication with a fresh perspective to help patients and consumers understand and make more informed health decisions.

While Oprah makes it seem natural, interviewing is a skill and one we can all learn how to do better. Here are 10 practices to help you hone the art of interviewing:

1. Do your homework

When Oprah talks to an author, she’s read the book, marked some pages with her favorite passages and knows where she wants to explore the author’s thinking.

When healthcare writers get 20 minutes with a busy physician, we go in already knowing enough to ask good questions. We’ve done our ‘investi-googling’ of the doctor’s bio, their specialty, their health system or practice websites. We may have to confirm what we’ve found from our research, but we can move quickly beyond the basics to find out what unique contributions the SME can add.

2. Set your interviewee up for success

You can bet Megan and Harry did a lot of preparation for their sit-down with Oprah. They had some messages to convey — and didn’t just show up and see what would happen.

Likewise, the professionals and patients that healthcare writers talk to want to be ready for their interviews. You want to communicate all the interview details to them in advance — the purpose, the questions you’ll be asking, how long it will take, and the process to complete the content.

3. Ease in

Start with a few light, easy-to-answer background questions. If you find you have something in common, be sure to mention it. This will help you make a connection, put everyone at ease and get things off on the right foot.

4. Exude authentic interest

After anchoring a daily talk show for 20 years, Oprah likely had some days that were a slog just to get through. But on stage, she always showed interest in her guests and what they had to say. Eye contact, nodding, leaning in — all the signals that she was actively listening to what they had to say.

With Zoom as a primary means of many SME interviews, writers often have to be on camera. It’s not easy to take notes, think about follow-up questions and still show your interviewee that you’re listening. But the extra effort to convey that you’re paying attention and interested, by looking up at your screen or providing an encouraging ‘oh’ or ‘hmm’ pays off. Recording your interview for later reference can free you up to listen more intently without worrying about taking complete notes. Today, many writers are using AI-note taking assistants to summarize interviews and conversations.

5. Don’t think you have to know all the answers

Oprah doesn’t have to prove her smarts to anyone anymore. But if you’re meeting and interviewing an expert for the first time, you want them to know you are credible in your field as a healthcare communicator. You can explain your background briefly and the groundwork you’ve done related to the interview. It’s fine to explain that you aren’t a clinician.

The good news is you don’t have to know all the answers before you ask the questions. That’s why you are interviewing them! Sometimes, it’s good to ask the questions even when you do know the answers. The SME may express the answer in a fresh way.

If you’re concerned about sounding ignorant, try framing the question from your audience’s perspective. For example, “What would you say to a patient who asked you if they need to exercise?” or “How would you explain this treatment to a new patient?”

6. Reflect and restate what was said

Meghan Markle dropped a bombshell in her interview that members of the royal family discussed the skin color that her son would have. Oprah didn’t let that slide by. She restates, very slowly, “There’s a conversation with you about how dark your baby is going to be?” That brought out more (juicy) details from Meghan that started the whole world talking.

Restating is a great technique in an interview to confirm that you heard something correctly and encourage more information. The interviewee knows you’re interested, but it doesn’t put them on the spot like saying, “Tell me more.”

7. Ask something unexpected

Before Oprah, there was Barbara Walters. For decades, Barbara would make celebrities cry and world leaders squirm on TV. While tears and discomfort are not a healthcare writer’s goal, asking something that brings out feelings, not just facts, can become the best quotes in a piece.

For instance, a cancer patient discussing her decision to have a double mastectomy because it had a 5% better survival rate than another treatment told a writer, “Every little percent counts when it comes to your life. I wanted to see my daughter graduate and be a grandma.”
There’s no need to make Tom Cruise jump on a couch, but getting a heartfelt human response can make your content more compelling.

8. Reassure your interviewee — even the big wigs

Oprah says the everyone asks the same question at the end of an interview: “Was that ok?” From Beyonce and Barack Obama to a prisoner behind bars — she realized everybody asked that question in some form.

At the end of your interviews, you naturally say thank you. But consider going the extra step and let your interviewee know they did well. We all need affirmation and to know we’ve been heard.

9. Follow-up and create a moment

Have you ever wondered if all those cars Oprah gave to audience members in 2004 are still on the road? Probably not. But you can bet every audience member remembers that moment when Oprah proclaimed, “You get a car!” There are some moments in our lives we remember for decades.

While you can’t give your SME an extravagant gift, you can create a moment they may remember. Take the time to write a thank you note, send a link to the finished content, share an article or congratulate them on an accomplishment. There are many ways you could create a moment that lets your SME know your appreciation goes beyond one conversation.

10. Sweat the details

This practice should be first on the list — but it’s the least glamorous. Oprah has people to take care of setting up her interviews. For your interviews, someone (probably you) must lock down the logistics. That means confirming the date and time (in the right time zone), communicating whether it’s a 1-1 phone call, conference call, Zoom or in person.

Make sure you also find out:

  • Who else needs to be in the interview?
  • Can you record?
  • Will the SME review the draft?
  • What are the next steps and deadlines?

It’s not exactly sexy, but everything else depends on it!

Healthcare writers know it’s a privilege to get to interview patients, physicians and other experts and share their stories. Like Oprah, we want to make the most of that opportunity. Using these 10 tips will help you get the most from your interviews.

If you want to work with healthcare writers who will treat your experts and patients like royalty, WG Content is ready. Drop us a line to learn how we can help you create engaging healthcare content.

Do your homework. Know the background of the person your interviewing and enough about the topic to have developed some thought-provoking questions. Move beyond the basics and find out what unique insights that SME has to share.

Restating is a way to express the main idea of the original comment without saying it exactly. It’s a great technique to confirm that you heard something correctly and encourage more information that is much more conversational than “Tell me more.”

Don’t ask closed-ended questions so you get answers more than a simple “yes” or “no”. Also, ask something unexpected. Your goal is to humanize the interview subject or topic, so you need feelings in addition to facts.

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