Let’s be honest, not every interview we get with someone shines. It happens. Sometimes we crash. The timing was wrong. Interruptions. Bad audio. And sometimes, we’re the reason behind that dashed opportunity.
I once accepted an assignment to interview an actor and submit an article the same day. I knew little of this man and even less of where his career was heading. The only thing I did remember happened years ago.
While promoting one of his films, this actor was involved in an accident where thankfully no one was hurt, but the property damage was exorbitant, making headlines the same day. Footage captured of the incident was sensational. Great material for the news networks, but not so great for the actor who appeared at fault. I held on to that accident almost subconsciously. Figuring I had little time, I did little research.
I got the actor on the phone and it happened quickly. My lack of preparation crept up and tripped me as I spoke. I stumbled over nothing. After my three opening questions drew mono-syllabic replies, I realized I had no way of engaging him because my questions were not really questions—at least nothing that could give me momentum. There I was, tapped for a question and flailing for something, anything, I could pull myself up with and go.
So I mentioned the accident. That’s right: I brought up a 6 year-old headline and asked him to respond. It was a bad and desperate move. The actor, now angry, must have felt he was in time travel. I tried something I knew was not going to work. We both knew that.
When I later called the editor to explain that there would be no article, I omitted the part about the interview getting cut short. The truth was, the angry actor was so annoyed, he decided he had nothing to talk about.
My hard lesson? Never wing it. Your play-by-ear move can come off as you not having much of a clue. Remember, your interviewees actually want to talk about their work in a meaningful way. Have a well-informed idea of where you’re going before you pose your first question.
Always do your homework.
Good, solid research unveils your map, a course of action. You chart it. It’s yours.
Plan it out.
Glean your best questions. Meaning, brainstorm some questions, then make a shortlist and pull out your strongest. Confirm how much time you have and decide how many of them you’ll ask. A natural order will emerge.
In other words, be open to arriving in a place you can’t see from where you’re standing. Sometimes you start moving in one direction but you’re not sure where it will lead you. Your interviewee says something you didn’t fully expect. Be open to following that lead.
You ask a question and the subject digresses and shares something else. The discussion moves from her best-selling book to the vacation she took on a picturesque and serene Caribbean island. Can you use that? Did that vacation inspire any part of her novel? Why mention that island now? Ask a follow-up question. Take a second to think about it. If your research was solid, you might know how to use that tangent, or keep it as a colourful aside. Some of your best interviews come from similar moments.
For an idea of such a moment, read Donna Minkowitz’s interview with award-winning, science fiction author Orson Scott Card (Salon.com, February 3, 2000). Before meeting her subject, Minkowitz was a self-described, breathless fan of Card’s work, particularly his book, Ender’s Game. She lays out, in extravagant detail, how their interview lands her somewhere she never expected. And while she did her research, Minkowitz missed an important fact: Card was an outspoken opponent of homosexuality.
As soon as you throw out that first question and a response emerges, listen carefully. But don’t overdo it. Never make the mistake of letting your interviewee go long while you, after allowing rambling stretches say, “Go on. I’m just listening.” While lending your ear is vital, your subject needs to know you have a plan. That is, lead the discussion with relevant questions and follow the answers.
Enough said. Try it for a few seconds and allow your subject’s last words to settle before moving to your next question. Sometimes, slowing the pace of the interview allows your subject to relax and offer more.
Establish eye contact.
If you don’t do this for your in-person interviews, you miss an opportunity to connect. Take notes, but look up occasionally, keep the gaze, and write at the same time. Sure, it takes skill. The more you do it the better you get it.
Repeat some of the story.
Your job is to get the facts right. When your interviewee tells a story explaining how something happened, repeat a portion of that story. So you arrived at the protest in the afternoon, and the police were already there, some in conversation with the organizers. What happened next? Your subject will appreciate your keen attention. If you missed a detail or got something wrong, it’s a chance to be corrected. Oh, you arrived in the morning, and the police were already there.
If you’re not sure of the right question to ask next, be truthful. Had I told the actor that I wasn’t following his career and wanted to share what was new with our readers, I’d probably get a response.
Save the inflammatory questions for last.
Make sure you have what you need before posing a question your subject might not appreciate. Regarding my lesson with the angry actor, it’s not that I never should have mentioned the infamous accident, it’s that I dropped it into a weak interview where I had nothing. Get what you need first and then ask a tough question. Should your subject cut the interview short, you can later decide if you’ll include his reaction with what you already have. That accident was years ago and you appear to have recovered. But audiences still remember it. Looking back at it now, how has that moment affected you over the years?
You might be surprised. A compelling response might follow. Or, your peeved subject might get up and leave in a huff. But then you’re free to describe how the door just missed him on his way out.
Do share: What are some of your best interview tips or your worst mistakes?
No judgment here.