Rogue Ink

April 2, 2008

Conducting Interviews for Folks Who Hate Conducting Interviews

The Golden Rule has always worked for me. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Which is why, occasionally, my friends will awaken to me on their doorsteps with a chai latte and a muffin at the ready. One of these days, someone will do so unto me. And that will be a good day. Because every day is a good day when it begins with a muffin.

Days that begin with a random stranger calling me up and asking me to give them money are not, however, good days. They are days that leave me fumbling for the coffeepot and growling at the cat. (Just to give you an idea of how annoyed I would be, I have no cat.) And yet this is the thing that, as a freelance writer, I have to do, over and over again. I call people who do not know me and I ask them for things. Frequently those things are money. More recently, those things are information.

I managed to land that gig writing articles for the employment section of the SF Chronicle, which means that every week I am clamoring for people to interview on various subjects. Cold-calling strangers is not something I enjoy doing. Asking those same strangers questions about why multi-interviewing has gotten so goddamn popular is not enjoyable, either, for them or for me. Here’s a few things that allow me to make peace with my Golden Rule.

They asked for it. Instead of contacting people out of the blue, try to get them to volunteer to be interviewed. This is easier than it sounds, especially when you stretch the rule a little bit and allow other people to volunteer your interviewee to you. Name-dropping a colleague of theirs is a good way to get past the initial ‘You’re a stranger, why should I even glance at your email?’ problem. Online forums are also a good place to find people – and people who know people. I’m on MediaBistro and a member of a women in consulting community, and when I send a little note out into the ether, dozens of people get in touch, wanting to be famous. Or in print. Which, for most of us mortals, is the same thing. Which brings me to . . .

Everybody wants to be an authority. We really do. You know that little thrill you get when you hear someone recommend you as the best person to talk to about how to grout your bathroom? Admit it. You get a thrill. And this is GROUT we’re talking about. When you’re calling someone to ask for an interview, you are asking them to be the authority on a topic. You are basically saying, “Hello, I’m doing an article on refinishing bathrooms, and so-and-so tells me you are the Queen of Grout. Would you, your highness, be so kind as to enlighten the rest of us peasants?” And everyone likes to be the Queen. Or King. Even if it is of Grout.

Grout is a funny word. Unrelated, but true. Related is the fact that being funny is the best possible thing you can do when speaking with a stranger. This is akin to the reason you should admit you were speeding when the cop pulls you over. It is so antithetical to what the cop was expecting that he will be thrilled. Same goes for interviews. When you first introduce yourself and do the perfunctory martini-chat, the interviewee is expecting you to be boring. If you’re funny and charming, you’ve just delighted them sideways. Low expectations are your friends.

Nobody likes a time-waster. Wham, bam, thank you Ma’am is bad for dating, but good strategy for interviews. Once you’ve got this interviewee actually talking to you on the phone, you want to get all the questions answered before the thrill of being an authority wears off. For most people, the upper threshold is about half an hour. If you’re Hunter S. Thompson and you are doing a full-length book on this person’s perspective, then you can take longer, but for articles and background information, keep it short and on-topic.

Questions are a beforehand activity. Seems obvious, but most of us consider ourselves savvy people, and we think, Hey, I’m bright. I can wing it. And we can’t. We are wrong. You will be typing up what this person is saying, and trying to follow their words, transfer them to paper, and remember what you were going to ask next is too much for your poor little brain. It is a fragile being. Be kind to it. Sometimes, without warning, it will come up with a brilliant off-the-cuff follow-up question, and then you can give it a cookie and feel superior to the rest of us. Do a little beforehand research and ask insightful questions. You’ll know you’ve done that when the interviewee says, ‘That’s a great question.’ Either that, or you’re talking to a professional politician. Back away slowly.

There is a magic question. If you’ve got a good authority on a subject, and you’ve liked what they have to say, you can usually squeeze one more drop of toothpaste out of the tube with the question “Is there anything I haven’t asked that I should have?” Some of the best anecdotes come from this question, and most of the best ledes I’ve ever written. It is a magical question. Use it wisely.

Know when to fold ’em. There are a few people who simply do not respond to leading questions. You could ask them to describe their adorable grandchildren, and they would only be able to come up with, “Well, they’re small.” Be polite to these people, but don’t try to force responses out of them. Go through your list of questions as naturally as you can with the crickets in the background, and then make a graceful exit.

Exit like a ninja. When I’m finished with an interview, I like to pull the trick my ex-boyfriend used to when he was tired of talking to me. I thank them, and then say, “Well, I should let you go.” Look how considerate I’m being! My interviewee is a busy person! She has dictates on Grout to deliver! And I remembered that! Aren’t I thoughtful!

Yes I am. I am also probably telling them I appreciated them taking the time, telling them I’ll contact them when the article runs, and saying goodbye, all while they’re still under the blissful little umbrella of my thoughtfulness.

Get a headset. Or your neck will hurt. That is all I need to say about that.

There’s some very practical, and well-written, advice on how to conduct an interview for normal people, who are not jaded and bitter, over on Words on the Page and (addendum) Smithwriting. Check it out.


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