Writer . Editor . Author
Here is an interesting article by Catherine Bray, deputy editor of 4Talent magazine on interviewing techniques for journalists. Entitled ‘What your course won’t teach you: the dos and don’ts of interviewing the good, the bad, and the reluctant’, she lays down a few insightful tips. I include some of my own experiences at the bottom of each.
What is an interview?
A meeting of people face to face, especially for consultation. A conversation between a journalist/radio/TV presenter and a person of public interest used as a basis of a broadcast or publication.
What is it for?
“You’re there primarily to help your readers get some insight into your subject’s work, and maybe to find out a little bit about what makes them tick as a person,” Bray writes.
Why is it important?
“For the would-be journalist, one of the most worthwhile skills of the trade to master is interviewing technique. Whether you’re a print, online or broadcast journalist, whether you specialize in entertainment, politics, lifestyle, or any other discipline, at some point you’re probably going to experience the thrill of a great interview, the horror of a bad one and everything in between,” she says.
What is not an interview?
“Becoming best mates with your interviewee is not the reason the interview was set up,” she advises. “One illusion best dropped soonest is that you are there to make friends, even if you are interviewing a personal idol.”
1. DON’T: Embarrass yourself and everyone else present with crazed requests
It sounds obvious, but if you’re interviewing a celebrity or other high-profile figure there’s a world of difference between politely asking someone to sign their autobiography, and going above and beyond. Some interviewees will be quite obliging, (like Lord of the Rings’ Andy Serkis posing for photos and even agreeing to record an answerphone message for one journalist in his Gollum voice), but it’s certainly not in their job description to play ball with this kind of thing.
Wan Phing says: When I interviewed cello-metal rock band Apocalyptica for MUSO magazine, I was so preoccupied with being professional that I refrained from asking for their autographs or having a picture taken with them. On hindsight, arghh!
2. DO: See/read/listen to your interviewee’s work in advance if possible
Make sure you know as much as possible about your subject before turning up. Interviewees quickly get bored of having to refute a popular misconception, and while the internet has made laying your hands on a wealth of information a relatively fast process, it’s also very easy to circulate rumours. Before asking whether it’s true they starred in The Wonder Years, see if you can find a reputable source backing it up.
Wan Phing says: I should have asked Apocalyptica band members more questions on their classical instruments and Paavo Lötjönen’s role as a part-time cello teacher, which I only found out about after the interview. Instead we spent 30 minutes talking about where to go holidaying in Finland, backpacking in Kuala Lumpur and Eicca Toppinen’s one-month holiday in a Langkawi resort.
There I was trying to make friends with my childhood music idols – the definitive no-no in interviews. Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour-Hoffman) said to William Miller (Patrick Fugit) in the movie Almost Famous: “You cannot make friends with the rock stars.”
Industry of cool
“Once you go to LA there are gonna be friends like crazy, but they’re gonna be fake friends, they’re gonna try and corrupt you. You’ve got an honest face, and they’re gonna tell you everything.
“They’re gonna buy you drinks, you’re gonna meet girls, they’re gonna try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs, I know it sounds great but these people are not your friends.”
“These are people who want you to write sanctimonous stories about the genius of rock stars and they will ruin rock ‘n’ roll and strangle everything we love about it. And then it just becomes an industry of… cool.”
Indeed, William is referred to as “The Enemy” when he goes on tour with Stillwater. The observer must never become the participant.
3. DO: Know your subject area
Always pursue interview opportunities that fall within your specialist subject areas – you’re putting yourself streets ahead of the writer who just takes it on as a job, at no extra effort. The problem may be making sure you let your interviewee get a word in edgeways.
Wan Phing says: This is always a difficult one, as many journalists tend to be generalists in order to procure a good variety for their portfolios when they are starting out. In journalism school, we were told to start out by being a good all-rounder before thinking about what our specialisms might be. When I spoke to a Christian couple about their charity clothes swap for a mission trip to Zambia, I felt that I could connect with them immediately and knew that I already had the background knowledge on their efforts and goals. The church is indeed my specialist subject area.
4. DON’T: Assume anything
It’s always worth checking and double-checking the details of your interview. As well as being useful from your point of view, if it’s a high-profile interviewee with a busy schedule it’s helpful to the press officer to know you’re on the ball.
Wan Phing says: When I accompanied a feature writer to interview actor Roger Lloyd Pack at The Royal Exchange Theatre, I watched how swiftly the experienced writer presented his questions. We were in and out in less than 15 minutes and I even asked the writer why the interview was so short (duh!)
5. DON’T: Rely on technology
Recording technology means there are plenty of journalists today, particularly on magazines, who don’t learn shorthand, preferring to rely on the dictaphone. Old school hacks may recoil, but there’s arguably nothing wrong with this – provided the technology doesn’t let you down.
Wan Phing says: Once I thought I had lost a whole 20 minute interview on my new dictaphone. It was in fact saved in another folder and I blamed it on being my first time using it. Shorthand can be excruciatingly painful to decipher at times, but the verdict on Teeline vs. tape is still 1-0.
6. DO: Maintain your composure.
Interviewing someone you’ve looked up to since beginning your career can do strange things to a person. When interviewing legendary columnist, author and personal icon Katharine Whitehorn, I found myself unusually flustered. When she’d finished her anecdote, I laughed. Only I didn’t, I snorted. A great, pig-truffling snort straight from the bacon emporium. She politely pretended it hadn’t happened.
Wan Phing says: When speaking to Apocalyptica band members, I was very much my comfortable “Oh really? Oh really?” self, with the occasional ear-splitting laugh that would make my sister put on her ear muffs. A clearer line needs to be drawn between the comfortable and the clumsy.
Illustrations by The Boy Fitz Hammond