Interviewing for publication: Part 2

sorry for last night
Entice your subject to talk.

6. During the interview, your first task is to make the subject trust you so that s/he opens up and divulges what you hope to learn. To do this, you might:

  • Indicate that you have done some homework and already know something about her/him. You know that she is a zealous fan of her college football team or that he often volunteers at the Center for Literacy.
    Mention an acquaintance you have in common.
  • Try bonding: “You’re from South Philadelphia? I grew up in North Philly. We’re practically neighbors.”
  • Find out if s/he typically wears blue shirts, red ties or pink necklaces. Dress to match.
  • Compliment her/his expertise or standing. Commend his/her work/book/insights or praise his/her leadership style.
  • Try getting your subject drunk. This tip is not my style, since half a glass of wine is my limit, but some writers swear by it. (NOTE: Not suited for the subject’s office.)
  • Volunteer your services. Former Inquirer sports editor Jay Searcy couldn’t land an interview with Buddy Ryan when Ryan first came to Philadelphia to coach the Eagles. Ryan still owned a horse farm in Kentucky. Searcy offered to work on the farm for a few days. First he flew to Oklahoma and interviewed Ryan’s mother, sisters and teachers. Then he worked side-by-side with Ryan for a few days, obviously gaining exclusive quotations. Years of easy access to Ryan followed.
  • On a smaller scale, if you meet your subject at home, help prepare your own coffee, then wash your own mug. By standing next to him/her in her kitchen, you are equalizing yourself, making your questions seem more friendly.

7. Open with easy questions, including, if you are not reading a resume, the spelling of the last name. (I once failed to ask Mr. Smith how he spelled Smith and caught heck from my editor when Mr. Smyth complained. Totally my fault.)

  • Pose a few easy, expected questions. For the CEO of your company, ask about recent hires or the newest reorganization.
  • As you move in more serious directions, consider the roundabout “What’s this I hear about….?” This way, you don’t appear to take responsibility for the challenge. Or “People have told me that….” Or “The elevator operator doesn’t think you know his name.”
  • Consider asking if the person has a trait or ability that no one knows about.
  • BUT. Experienced writers warn against asking questions whose answers you don’t know. Years ago a reporter interviewed the executive director of the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force. He wrote: “Don’t ask Rita Addessa about her childhood, or her hobbies, or her favorite flavor jelly bean or the name of her cat. “I hate fluffy stories,” she explains, “and I don’t like talking about myself.”
  • Try, try again. In 1992, when Frank Sinatra performed 6 concerts in London, he refused all interviews. But Rebecca Hardy, a reporter for the London Daily Mail, slipped a list of questions under his hotel suite door, and he answered.