The secret art of interviewing
Interviewing is just like any skill – the more you do it, the better you get.
I’ve interviewed more than 500 celebrities for Britain’s best-selling national newspapers and magazines, government publications, websites and blogs. I’ve interviewed the full range of A-listers, B-listers and er… C, D and E-listers.
They include government ministers, 6 Oscar winners, Spice Girls, Rolling Stones, comedians, Olympians, US Open tennis and golf champions, business tycoons, Hollywood authors, TV presenters, royalty, permanent secretaries, VC holders, fighter pilots and more. Experience has taught me tips for coaxing the best from an interviewee and traps to avoid. I want to share the secrets to a great interview with you, so let’s get going.
Landing the big interview
Contact the VIP’s personal assistant or agent and send them a winning pitch. Tempt them by making it sound interesting, newsy and enjoyable. If you’ve interviewed VIPs for the same series, attach examples of your best interviews and make it hard for them to turn you down. Dare to be different. When I invited Sir Bruce Forsyth to recount his memories of D-Day when he served as a young airman for the MOD’s Civil Service magazine, Bruce jumped at the chance, keen to pay tribute to his teenage brother killed in action in WW2.
At the same MOD magazine, I came up with a series called My Crisis, inviting every former (living) secretary of state to talk through the historic crisis that defined their period in office. Lords George Robertson, Denis Healey, Geoff Hoon, John Nott, Tom King and Malcolm Rifkind all accepted. It made a groundbreaking series, provoked huge interest and gave MOD’s magazine credibility. If you don’t have an obvious interview hook, create your own and remember, look for the hook!
LinkedIn is another way to catch VIP’s attention. By all means, send them an invitation to ‘connect’ but never send an automated impersonal message which is like white noise. Instead, tailor it with a brief, sincere note introducing yourself, and say why you’re keen to work with them, suggesting an upcoming project.
How much time do you have?
Ok, you’ve landed the interview, check how much time you have to conduct it. Ask for the maximum time available, then cram in as many questions as possible. Way better to have too many than be racking your brains for something to ask. I once interviewed Hollywood star Mickey Rooney, who torpedoed through my carefully-constructed questions in nano-seconds, and I resolved to double my question list.
Determine how you’ll do the interview
I always prefer the in-person interview to strike up a rapport. It’s also easier to gauge whether they’re pausing because they’re still thinking as it’s awkward to interrupt them mid-flow. During the pitch, ask if they’re going on a visit out of town. If it’s a far-flung location, you may be able to go along, see them live in action and do the interview on the train ride home. You might even get more time than the promised half hour.
Check out the department’s annual report
Whether you’re interviewing a permanent secretary or attending a job interview, google the department’s annual report. Home in on the Foreword at the front. The foreword is your interview friend. It’s the report equivalent of a reality show’s ‘best bits’ with all the highlights of the department’s previous 12 months neatly crammed into an easily digestible summary.
Another handy resource is the Year Ahead page, packed with the department’s goals. Memorise 4-5 highlights and a few Year Ahead goals and you’ll look like your finger’s on the pulse. Twitter’s great too if they have a personal account as well as the department’s feed for a wider feel. Permanent secretaries often write blogs, so leave no stone unturned.
Google your interviewee for the lowdown on their career, background, achievements, ambitions and try to find out what makes them tick. You may even stumble across a memorable job, in the case of Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary Alex Chisholm, who worked as a Santa in Debenhams department store while at university.
If your senior leader’s launching a campaign, report or policy… make sure you know what it’s about. You don’t have to be a policy expert but you need to know enough that if they go into detail, you know the basic arguments. Ideally, conduct your research before securing your interview in case the interview crops up at short notice.
You’ll sound interested, intelligent, and knowing a few facts helps frame your questions. When I interviewed former Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey, he warned me to read his biography. I tracked down a copy on eBay that ran to more than 850 pages (eek), but I trawled it in search of golden nuggets (more later…). Lord Healey was impressed I made the effort and doubled the interview time.
Consider your questions
Write your questions in order of descending importance. That way, if your VIP’s rushed away after just three questions, you have just enough for a quote or tweet.
There’s another reason…. Most VIPs only give interviews if they have something they really want to say, so set expectations in your interview pitch. Perhaps they want to promote a themed week, launch a campaign or unveil a new event. Get your most relevant questions in at the top, then watch your interviewee visibly relax. I’ve interviewed many celebs to launch their new album, tour or TV series – that’s why they’re there. Get the plug out of the way fast.
Never send questions in advance
If your subject is a senior civil servant, their private office may ask for interview questions in advance, which I try to resist. Danger is, if you send over questions beforehand, you risk getting bland, stilted answers. Explain you prefer to keep the conversation open so you can react to their answers for a more lively conversation. Instead, offer topic headings (e.g. Civil Service Reform, Levelling Up etc.), to reassure the private office, that question-wise, you won’t stray too far off-piste.
Check your voice recorders
I love an old-school recorder, but many journalists use smartphones. Do a sound check when you ask the interviewee to say their name and job title, and play back to check they’re audible.
Ask a fun question
Whenever I interview a VIP, I ask a lighthearted question to break the ice. When I researched Chancellor Denis Healey (also a former Foreign Secretary), his memoir recalled the occasion he visited a remote village in Africa where a tribal elder proudly presented him with two shrunken human heads. As soon as we were over the threshold, I recounted this and asked if we could see the grisly souvenir. Healey had handed them over to customs but visibly brightened at the mention of it. He knew I’d done my homework, and we kicked off proceedings with a warm, lively vibe.
Whenever I interview a celeb, I’ll scour eBay for obscure fan memorabilia that relates to them, to ask them about. In the case of a permanent secretary, have they featured in recent press coverage. It sets the scene and makes a more interesting interview.
Ask open-ended questions
Sounds obvious, but always ask open-ended questions. Keep in mind, those first few moments are key for VIP-interlocutor relations. Listen and ask follow-up questions to make for a more natural, free-flowing conversation. End the interview by asking if there’s anything else they’d like to add. This gives them the chance to offer any extra info.
Press conferences – make your one question count
When I worked for Hello, I was invited to a screening for Dame Julie Walters’ new TV series. Julie arrived as the lights went down, and sat in the front row. As the credits rolled, I realised (with horror) my questions would be limited to just one, in front of the audience. The TV producer asked who had a question so I grabbed my chance – but almost fluffed it – in front of 300 actors, producers and assembled media.
“Hi Julie,” I began. “Indian Summers looks like a great series. You’ve had a long fantastic career. But if you could play any dream role, what would it be?” Now, Dame Julie is a multi BAFTA winner and consummate media pro.
This was her latest Channel 4 series after all, so Julie, naturally, said: “This is my dream role.” Oops. After an agonising silence, she relented, adding, “But I wouldn’t say no to a cameo on Downton Abbey!”
At that point, the runner holding the fluffy mic started to move away. This was my last chance, so I grabbed it like a cat clinging to a curtain, and bellowed my last question. “But would you be a character upstairs or downstairs?”
Fortunately, Julie’s trademark humour kicked in and she said: “Ooh upstairs, can you imagine, I’d be a grand duchess!” before expanding with a witty, funny reply that I could turn into a mini feature, padding it out with promo about the TV series. Point is, you may only get one crack at a question, so make it count.
Embrace the uncomfy interview pause
Nothing feels more awkward than a lengthy pause. But if you ask a tough question, leave room for that awkward pause. It’s a human reaction to want to fill the gap… and 9 times out of 10, they’ll elaborate. But they also might be thinking of the next thing to say.
Play devil’s advocate. Don’t be afraid to challenge safe assumptions, anything controversial or clichéd. Adapt your interview style to the interviewee. Mel B is famously northern and straight-talking. My interview was to promote her fitness DVD, I was her umpteenth hack of the day, and as I awaited my slot, she sounded bored. Instead of opening with a bland ‘How are you/Fine thanks…’ exchange, I breezed in with “Hi Mel, I’ve got a bone to pick with you!” Mel’s ears pricked up and she hollered, “Why?! What have I done now?”
“Well, I tried your fitness DVD last night,” I began, “And it’s impossible, my ribs are killing me and I can barely walk downstairs. No normal girl can do it!”
“Rubbish! That shows it works brilliantly!” grinned Mel, instantly warming up. “Don’t blame me cos you’re unfit!” she cackled.
Now, don’t try that approach if you’re interviewing a permanent secretary, but always tailor your approach to the individual to get the best out of them.
Running out of time…?
If the interviewee gives long, rambly answers for a short, punchy Q&A, let them know subtly. Wait till they’ve finished answering one, then say, “I have loads of questions but I’m conscious of time running out, so I’d like to ask a few quick-fire questions that just need a brief line.” It’s polite, flags up an amber light to the VIP for brevity, and spares the awkwardness of interrupting them mid-flow.
If the private secretary signals your interview’s drawing to a close, ask how long you have left. Then ask, “I’d like to just ask three more questions if that’s ok,” and prioritise on the spot. If there’s a hole in the interview, you may be able to email a follow-up question later but don’t bank on it. Always pack in your most important questions from the get-go.
The bucket question
Whenever I interviewed senior leaders or celebs, at the tail end of the interview, I’d always ask if they’d mind asking a bucket question – totally unrelated to the interview topic – where you bank the answer for a future feature.
For example, I once wrote a feature around Celebs’ Most Memorable Christmases. Comedian Josie Lawrence talked about the pain of losing her dad on Christmas Eve and X Factor judge Dannii Minogue fondly recalled childhood beach BBQs in her native Australia. Make sure you ask each VIP the same bucket question, and once your virtual bucket is full, you have a brand new, oven-ready feature. Ker-ching!
Once your interview is in the can, aim to publish it as soon as possible. In government departments, policy can change on the hoof or get delayed. Run your interview before it gets stale.
I interviewed ex-England footballer Gazza, to promote his new book, who was on top form. My slot was booked for months, but when Paul Gascoigne was caught up in a tabloid scandal, it kiboshed my feature.
My next celeb travel feature for The Telegraph didn’t fare any better. The interview went brilliantly and I primed my family and friends to rush out and buy it on New Year’s Day. I counted the days down to fame and glory, but on Boxing Day, the tsunami struck and the paper (quite rightly) dedicated its issue to a Tsunami Edition.
Imagine your interview is in the can, you’ve got brilliant exclusive quotes and it’s just been published – yay! But (after a brief moment of euphoria) there are golden opportunities to push your interview and nudge up the hits.
As a celeb interviewer, I often asked the celeb for their phone number in case of a last-minute fact-check. Then as soon as the interview was published, I texted the celeb to say, ‘Hi, it’s Lorraine here from the Telegraph. Just letting you know your interview is out today. If you get a moment, please tweet it to your fans.’
In the case of Russell Watson, he tweeted my interview, giving my feature a chunky plug to his 30,000 fans. But it doesn’t end there. I’d then ring up the paper’s social media desk and ask them to retweet the celeb’s post. Social media is truly the gift that keeps on giving.
Use hashtags effectively
Think of creating hashtags in three groups – conventional hashtags, related hashtags and catchy memorable hashtags – to promote your article to the world.
Imagine for a moment, you’ve written an article about St Paul’s Cathedral and you want to grab extra readers. Conventional hashtags might include #StPaulsCathedral, #ChurchOfEngland, #Archbishop or #ChristopherWren, all spot-on but safe. Related hashtags include topics that you might associate with your article. In this case, it might include #RoyalWedding (as the marriage venue for Prince Charles and Princess Diana) or #WinstonChurchill (his funeral venue). Then add a random, memorable hashtag where your imagination can let rip such as #PutARingOnIt or #BestDayofYourLife which are more Insta-friendly.
Say thank you!
And finally… It’s always polite to send a brief email containing the interview link, thanking the interviewee (don’t forget the fixer, who helped you set it up!) for their time, and offering to interview them again in future. Simple gestures go a long way. It’s also a good moment to send them a connection invitation on LinkedIn to grow your network.
- Image credit:
- Lorraine McBride (1)