How to interview someone for a publication

I thought I'd offer this advice on interviewing people. I do this a lot. Mostly senior executives of trans-national companies, so most of the advice is taken from that angle, but it works for everyone, except, perhaps politicians. More on that later.

1. Background

If your interviewee (the target) has any kind of profile, then they will certainly have a team of PRs, advisors and guard dogs. Your target may also have had some kind of 'media training' None of these things is by definition bad, but you do need to understand what role these people play and how to use them to your own advantage.

The PR' s job is first to decide whether you are the right person to do the interview (are you competent, what publication do you write for, what is your viewpoint on the subject in hand etc), second to make the arrangements (date, place, time, etc), third, to brief the target on your expected questions, and how to answer them, and fourth, to try to massage any resulting article. If they do not rate you as a journalist, then sorry, but the only way to get the interview is to doorstep the target yourself. And then, if you are lucky, you will only get a few moments.

You will almost certainly be asked to supply a list of questions ahead of time. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows the target to prepare (or more likely, allows the PR to prepare answers), and alerts them to the general area of questioning. It is a process of negotiation with the PR as to how early you deliver the list (if at all) and how detailed it is. In general, if there is an obscure question which needs a detailed answer, it is best to give them time to find the answer. It is rare to give a completely full list of questions. Always retain some difficult ones for follow-ups.

You may well be asked what happens after the interview. Does the PR get to see the article prior to publication? This is tricky. This negotiation is an early test of power and resolve. It depends on how much they need you, and how much you need them. Almost all A-list stars, for example, insist on seeing the article, and having the right to edit it prior to publication. They have no shortage of writers and editors willing to concede to their demands, and they can simply refuse to grant interviews to those who refuse these conditions. Sad, but true.

Lesser mortals, however, need the oxygen of publicity, and they are willing to negotiate away some or all editorial control if they feel the magazine and journalist are worth it. Stand up for yourself and see how far you can go. My own stance is that they never get to see the article before publication, but they may read the transcript. They have no right to make changes: they can offer advice and suggestions and point out errors of fact or interpretation, but the final decision about whether we accept their advice remains with me in the editorial office.

Now that all the ground rules have been agreed, along with a date, place and time, you need to think about what to ask.

2. Preparation

Preparation is good. It is rare to get more than about 60 minutes with your interviewee, often you may not get more than 10 minutes. You do not want to waste time on simple questions. There is no point asking a chief exec about details of turnover if it is printed in the annual report. There is no point asking a rock star about their discography. You can get this stuff by preparing beforehand. Aim to use the precious time with the target to get answers to some questions which no-one has previously asked.

A second factor is that if the interviewee likes your questions, or has not heard them all before, then they may well choose to extend the interview beyond the time allocated by their PR team. This happens surprisingly often. It is a Good Thing!

If you are new to the subject matter, then start researching at the bottom, asking the simple, stupid questions to relatively junior people. As you get a better understanding of the subject, find middle-level people, until you know that the questions you are developing for your prime target are worthy of someone at that level. Again, it is a waste of everyone's time to ask a chief exec questions more suited to the local branch manager.

Find out about your target and the subject. Everything you can, but with an eye on what you expect to appear in the finished article. Look on the web, check your files, look at the websites both supportive and anti. If you think people in Newsgroups will be helpful, you can post there, saying, "I am going to spend a short time with person XXX, what would be a good question to ask?" Other good places to look are on the offical websites, but take care to look especially hard at negative, or opposing sites, just to see what the opponents are saying. Memorise a few key facts from credible opponents.

If the person is in oil, check out Greenpeace. If the person is a vocal supporter of drugs, look at the anti-legalisation campaigns. If their company has been accused of employing child labour in Vietnam, check all the facts, and then check out the corporate rebuttals. Find the inconsistencies and ambiguities. Plan to use the interview time to get explanations of these grey areas.

If you are writing for a business magazine, it is more important to find out what the person represents, and how they are tackling it than details like schooling, family background etc. It is helpful to know these things, but if they aren't going to appear in your final write-up, you don't need to know more than superficial details. In the interview you will have limited time with the person, so don't waste it on things which you are not going to use. For a business magazine, know the boring stuff, like sales, profits, business focus, employee counts, so you don't have to waste time on them in the interview. Same thing for more popular articles. If you already know the obvious stuff, you can use the interview time to dig deeper. Writing for a teen pop magazine, things like favourite colour, brothers, sisters, what they did at school and suchlike are vital parts of the story. If you already know these, then you can clear them with the PR people ahead of time (or afterwards) and spend the valuable interview getting a bit more information to tell your readers.

Then do some more preparation. Think of what questions you want to ask and how to ask them. Structure them well. Think how the target will answer your question, and have two or three follow-ups ready. If you plan to spend a lot of time on child labour, include a direct reference to the subject, but keep it neutral, rather than antagonistic. You want the target to open up to you; not to get defensive.

3. Equipment

Always take a notepad and pen. You might have a pocket tape recorder, or a digital voice recorder, or a minidisc machine to record the interview, but batteries run out, plugs and sockets get dirty and bent, memory chips are not always 100 percent reliable. A clean notepad and a working, free-flowing pen (or preferably two) is your insurance policy.

Recording devices are good. It is much easier to ask questions, listen to the answer and think of the next question, if you don't have to take notes as well. An added advantage is that interviewees sometimes forget the tape is running, and get a bit less discrete. If you are writing notes, they can constantly see that their words are being recorded.

Recording devices are bad. A few times, I have come out of the interview and tried to playback the tape only to discover that the recording is useless. Too much background noise; it failed to record; the batteries were not powerful enough. it could be anything, but it's bad news.

It's up to you, but my recommendation is pen and paper backed up with your preferred recording device.

It's a good idea to take a camera to get a snap of the target, plus any other worthwhile images from the meeting.

4. The interview

Dress appropriately. If that means a business suit, do it. If it means street clothes, or beachwear do that. You want to put your target at ease, not on edge.

Arrive early. It is important. Your target will have more appointments after you are finished, so any time you spend arriving late will cut into the time available for your questions. If you arrive early, there is a small possibility that they will let you start early. Unlikely, but not unheard-of.

The PR will meet and greet and do some small talk. Make no promises about letting them see the article ahead of time. Try to find out what the target is going to say. The PR will have been involved in those decision, so she will probably know. She will probably not let on, however.

Once in the room, you are in charge. Everyone pretends that the target is in charge. Play along if you want, but remember that it is not true. The interviewer runs the show. You decide which questions to ask, and in what order. You decide when a topic is finished and the time to move onto the next one. You decide if an answer is detailed enough. The only thing they can decide is when to finish. It is wise, therefore, to ask the target near the beginning, how long before his or her next appointment. They can choose to extend this time, but they can't really cut you short, once that question has been asked and answered.

Assess how well prepared the target is. Do they ask lots of questions about procedure, or just want to get on with it. Either way, It's usually best to start off with an easy one, like How is business? or What are your immediate plans for..?. This helps to put them at their ease, and gives you an idea of how they answer questions.

My technique then is to allow the conversation to develop along lines which I want. Interrupting where necessary, and changing the subject when I think a subject is exhausted, always keeping an eye on the time.

Politicians are the worst. They are very skilled at talking without saying anything concrete. They know that to express a firm opinion is to alienate half their constituency, so they try to avoid giving direct answers. They just spout words and more words. You have to be rough with them, keeping them on track and getting answers to your questions. Watch Jeremy Paxman doing this. He is extremely skilled at getting answers from politicians. No mean feat.

If you have to tackle a sensitive topic, try to be rational about it. Above all, don't make it appear that you have pre-judged the issue. Questions like, I don't understand how this works, or , can you just clarify why such-and-such happened, or some people might see that as cruel and unethical, how do you defend yourself against those people? can be helpful here. Again, the objective is to get the target to open up and explain their shortcomings and failures, not to antagonise them.

It's often best to follow up a sensitive subject with a 'gift' question, How do you convince your customers that you are better than the competition, or why do you think you are the most popular, or some such.

Finally, a few minutes before the official end, give them the chance to have their own say: Is there anything we have not covered that my readers ought to know? or some such. That way, they get on their own territory at the end of the time slot, and you might get an extra few minutes.

At the end, always thank them for their time, and try to be gracious.

5. The aftermath

Transcribe the tape, or type up the notes, make the transcript, correct spellings, but not grammar. Leave their unfinished sentences and non-sequiturs in plain view, do whatever you agreed with the PR, and then write the piece.

If you will ever have to deal with the person or company or PR again, try to be as fair as you can. If you or your paper will never have to deal with them again, then you can be unfair. This is why tabloid newspapers can destroy the members of the public they come across. There is no reason ever to go back to those people. This is their sole 10 minutes of fame, and the paper or journalist has a free hand to make stuff up, or exaggerate or otherwise modify the story, knowing there is very little come-back. Where celebrities or business people are concerned, however, enlightened self-interest means the journalist will usually be reasonably fair.

The article does not have to follow the sequence of questions during the interview. It is usualy better to pick out some of the nuggets from the middle of the interview, rather than the bland stuff at the beginning. How to write the article is a whole different subject.

Note: this piece written, formatted and edited in dann's off-line scratchpad

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