WordCount – Freelancing in the Digital Age

By Michelle Vranizan Rafter

Prepping for the big one – 12 ways to ace a VIP interview

with 4 comments

I recently interviewed a management guru who’s a rock star in corporate circles, makes a mint from training sessions and has several best-selling business books under his belt.

Want to know what he did at the end of the 60 minutes we spent on the phone? He thanked me for reading his books before we talked. It seems that despite his fame and glory, he gets interviewed all the time by reporters who don’t bother to find out the first thing about what he does before turning on their tape recorders. That’s like a music writer talking to Chris Martin without listening to a single Coldplay song.

And we wonder why people don’t respect writers.

Not adequately prepping for a big interview is one of the cardinal sins of journalism. True, if you’re racing to a crime scene or get dragged onto a story at the last minute there’s not much time for research.

But more often than not, there’s time to do at least a cursory search on your subject. And if it’s a story that you pitched to a magazine or Website you have no excuse for not doing your homework before dialing Mr. or Ms. Big.

What should that homework consist of? Here’s my checklist of 12 things to do to ace a VIP interview:

1. Read the book. Need I say more?

2. Read what other people have written. That includes whatever you can get your hands on about your interview subject’s work, company, book or whatever other aspect of their life you’re writing about. Information is power. Soak up as much as possible so you’re comfortable with the subject matter and so you know what the heck Mr. Big is talking about.

3. Write your questions ahead of time. There’s nothing worse than getting tongue tied because you’re nervous, or forgetting to ask the most important question. Need help? Ask your editor for input.

4. Get your numbers straight. Just this week I almost missed an interview because I thought the subject was calling me and she thought I was calling her (the PR rep got her wires crossed). Work out the logistics ahead of time so you can spend the final minutes leading up to an interview mentally going over what you’ll say, not frantically looking for a phone number or street address.

5. Be on time. Show up late for an interview and you’ve already pissed off the person you were hoping would open up to you. Ain’t gonna happen now.

6. Take good notes. A voice recorder is a beautiful thing, especially the digital kind that plug into a conmputer’s USB port. But machines break, batteries die, stuff happens. So back yourself up with typed or handwritten notes. Yes, it’s old school, but it works.

7. Be polite. At least at first. Good manners go far in this business. And if it turns out to be a confrontational interview, you can always switch to bad cop mode.

8. Play devil’s advocate. Afraid to ask probing questions? Couch it in a non-threatening phrase like “Skeptics say…” or “There are people who say that you…” or “Let’s say for the sake of argument I don’t buy your opinion of (XYZ subject). Convince me.”

9. Keep track of the time. Heads will roll – namely yours – if you hang up before asking your editor’s pet question. Skip some questions if you have to, you can always follow up on the middling stuff with your VIP’s publicist, secretary or marketing chief.

10. Ask for more. Ms. VIP may have said she only has 15 minutes, but as you get close to being done, ask for more time anyway. If things are going well, she may oblige you by answering another question or two. And if not? There’s no harm in trying.

11. Ask what to ask.
My go-to last question is always the same: “Is there anything else you’d like to say?” It gives your VIP the opportunity to mention something else that’s on their mind that could lead your story in a whole new direction. Or not. But you’ll never know if you don’t ask.

12. Say thank you. They didn’t have to talk to you, but they did. So even if they weren’t forthcoming or even if they didn’t say anything you didn’t already know, thank them anyway. You never know when you might need to talk to Mr. or Ms. VIP again.

4 Responses

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  1. Michelle,
    it’s important to have that bit of space before an interview, with all ducks in a row about logistics, you are very right about that. I use that time, though, to clear my mind and focus on listening, not what I’ll say. I do a lot of profiles, so maybe it comes from that, but I find that works best for me in doing round tables and sorts of interviews as well.

    Kerry Dexter

    February 16, 2009 at 10:36 am

  2. […] Prepping for the big one – A dozen ways to ace a VIP interview. […]

  3. […] to. I know a good story when I see one. I can find sources. I’ve pulled court documents and interviewed relatives of homicide victims and dying children. I’ve combed through 10Ks and dissected […]

  4. […] The class is geared to entry-level reporters, writers and bloggers who’d like to learn some tricks of the trade from a old fart veteran. The class could also be helpful to freelancers or citizen journalists who’ve come to writing or blogging from a different career and need a better mastery of the basics, including doing research, finding sources, making corrections and prepping for interviews. […]

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