By Caitlin Kelly
I’ve been interviewing people for a living — journalistically — for decades.
These include the former female bodyguard for New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani on 9/11 (global exclusive), a female Admiral, Olympic athletes, an NHL coach, convicted felons and just regular people, aka “civilians”, people who may never before have spoken to a journalist and realized that every word counts.
My 11 tips:
Always start and end with a sincere thank-you for their time and attention.
Very few people have to speak to us, and for some, it can feel like an ordeal. The more warm, empathetic and human you are, the better it will go. Yes, some interviews are very tough on the subject, even adversarial. That’s also our job. But being an efficient robot is rarely the best way to elicit great stuff.
Prepare, prepare, prepare.
Nothing is ruder than waltzing into someone’s home, office, or life without knowing who they are, why you are speaking to them and how they fit into your story. Do your homework! It shows respect and will, always, elicit a deeper, richer exchange as a result.
Consume everything you can on this person before you speak so you’re easily able to reference their books, videos, TED talks, podcasts, essays, journal articles.
Obviously, if you’re writing 300 or 500 words, you can’t afford to do this. But a story of 1,000 words or more means digging deeper. Few moments are as flattering to an interview subject than letting them realize you’ve really done your prep on them and their ideas and accomplishments. Sometimes I go all the way back to college or high school yearbooks and friends from those years.
It only appears social.
A great interview can be conversational or feel like it. There are times I just lay down my pen and stop writing, preferring just to listen, watch their body language and take a breather. I also, when it feels legitimate, may share a personal detail with them that’s relevant to the story and its focus. This can build trust. Why would anyone just spill it all to a stranger?
Allow at least 30 minutes unless you truly only need a very quick quote.
My interviews are routinely 30-45 minutes, often an hour, sometimes 90 minutes and (whew!) rarely, two hours. After that I am utterly whipped and so are they.
One of my old notebooks — coffee stains and all!
Tape or take notes on paper or computer — whatever works best for you — as long as you are accurate!
Do what works for you. Fact-check!
Make sure, whenever possible, no one — pets, children, the mailman, an assistant, your cellphone — intrudes and interrupts.
This is a sacred space. Don’t check your phone! Create intimacy and trust. Focus.
Allow plenty of time beforehand, certainly when doing this face to face, to find the right place, settle in, use the washroom and steady your nerves.
We all have those “ohhhhhh shit!” moments — your kid melts down as you’re leaving the house, you feel ill, the bus/train/subway is slow or late or cancelled. Give yourself plenty of time to get calm. Your subject needs to feel confidence in you.
Ask them who else they consider essential for you (and your audience) to understand and explain the story properly.
If you’re done your job well, they’ll share some great intel they might not give someone less skilled.
What’s the story’s direction?
If this feels comfortable, consider sharing the focus, length and direction of your story, and maybe some of the other sources you’re speaking to.
Some journalists totally refuse to do it. I do this, judiciously, for strategic reasons.
Ask them, at the end, what you failed to ask.