The Way of the Word

6. December 2009

About Interviews – Part 2 of 3

Filed under: writing — jensaltmann @ 17:18
Tags: , , , ,

You think being interviewed is easy? That all you need to do is sit there, let someone else do all the heavy lifting (= ask the questions), and just feed them a soundbite or two?

That’s gonna bite you in the backend.

Before I continue, I feel the need to remind you that the interviewer and the interviewee aren’t opponents. Well, perhaps in political reporting, but not in entertainment journalism. When I interview a celebrity about their latest movie or book, it’s part of my job to make them sound coherent and intelligent. For that, I need their help.

When I transcribe an interview, I always have much more material than I need. More than I can use. Which means I get to pick and choose which parts I put into the final article. (Sometimes I damn the proverbial torpedoes, just write it all down, and let the editor cut it down to size — that always depends on my briefing.) What the final article looks like depends on how the interview went. And that’s where the interiewee comes in.

A part of it is chemistry. Sometimes the interviewee and the interviewer hit it off. The interview becomes a chat, a friendly conversation. Until the press person pops in and declares that time’s up. And you’re sorry it is.

Sometimes the chemistry doesn’t happen. You’re given 20 minutes, you prepare your questions. The interviewee is cooperative, but not really motivated, so you wrap the thing up sooner than expected.

That timing can also happen when the interviewee is motivated and actually answers as-yet-unasked questions, so that you get to wrap things up quicker than expected.

Sometimes the interview is hostile. For some reason, interviewer and interviewee don’t like one another. That’s the worst-case-scenario. In those instances, the interviewee needs to remember that the interviewer can make them sound like a moron, or a major jerk, or even worse. In this case of recording devices, the interviewee might not even have the “I never said that” defense. “Yes you did, here’s the recording.” “That’s totally out of context!” “So what?”

The interviewer’s responsibility is to remember that the interview isn’t for or about them, it’s about the interviewee and their audience. That means you don’t get to do what I just described above.

In 20 years of interviewing, I had exactly one hostile interview. The interviewee had forgotten that we had arranged a time for the phone interview. They were busy with something else, and resented having to take the time. At my end, I had come down with high fever and would have liked to call this off as well, if not for my deadline. If I ever meet the interviewee from back then, I’ll apologize — even though they’ve probably forgotten all about it by now.

One thing that is similar to a hostile interview, and can lead to that, is the indifferent interviewee. The one who clearly doesn’t want to be there, but they have to because of some contractual obligation, so get this over with already man. If the interviewee is rude enough, they will make it clear just how bored and uninterested they are, and it’s up to the interviewer to not let that influence the interview. The only way to hide something like that is during an e-mail interview. Anywhere else, the interviewer will notice it.

So, what do we learn from that? If you get interviewed, you need to be all there. You need to pay attention to what’s being asked, and ideally you know what you’re talking about. You pay no attention to the fact that you’re being asked the same questions over and over again. If you’re an actor, it might help if you pretend you’re shooting a boring talking-heads scene a dozen times or so. 🙂 Just remember that the person who interviews you is as much a professional at what they do as you are at what you do, and pay some professional respect. Then you’ll get the same in return. Basically, the one thing you need to do: you need to focus.

In the next installment, I’ll provide some case studies of actual interviews to illustrate what I discussed yesterday and today.



  1. How about a post on actually getting the interview? It’s not so easy without a publicist to help you.

    Comment by Uninvoked — 6. December 2009 @ 17:59

  2. Hurm. Not a bad idea. I used to get most of my interviews through my own devices, back in the day. In the last two or three years, most of them were arranged through the magazine.
    Maybe I’ll take you up on this and add a fourth About Interview post. I have a couple of days to think about it.

    Comment by jensaltmann — 6. December 2009 @ 18:03

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