How to prep before interviewing

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I’ve been using much the same prepping routine for, heavens, 40 years. It works best for an article for a magazine or newspaper, but I can’t envision much change if I were calling to set up a follow-up appearance in a webinar, CD, podcast, or a spot on a video.

For example, I interviewed Adlai Stevenson several times. The first time, he had just left the office of Governor of Illinois and lived in Libertyville, not too far away. I don’t recall the subject but he had referred to it in print a week or so earlier. So, at that time, I cycled to the library and poured over every reference he had made, and what others had said in disagreement. While there I wrote down his bio information and home phone. (Think of how much easier, faster, and kinder to me and my cycle chain it is now with computers on my desk, Google+ at hand, and photos instantly downloadable.)

I had previously queried the editor of a magazine about the article in question, and had listed five likely interviewees (I spoke with four). Governor Stevenson headed the list. The editor gave me a go-ahead. So I knew what I needed, particularly since two of the others on the list of hoped-for interviewees had already voiced opinions in print that disagreed with the Governor.

All that was left was summarizing the purpose of the article (he would ask) and putting three or four questions in logical order, as a loose guide. The answer(s) I most needed were to the second question—too often the person was called away (or didn’t want to say more) early in the exchange. Therefore, the first question got them talking in the direction of the second question, so I could segue easily into it (something like “…does that mean that…?” or “yet Senator Taft sees it differently. Two weeks ago he said…”) The other questions were progressively less important. I hoped to converse for 15 minutes but five and a quality reply (or quote) or two was plenty.

Incidentally, if the person starts digressing early, if what they say is related and has value, don’t cut them off or stop that flow. Just work back to question #2, gently—or if their new path is far more interesting (and usable), help them expand by asking related questions. Usually, you can then finish up by asking, “Governor, may I ask one more question?” Then ask #2.

I was ready, so I called the Stevenson house, expecting to get a secretary or aide to screen my request. I usually began something like this: “Hi, ____, I’m Gordon Burgett and I’m writing an article about _______ (or I’m on assignment) for X Magazine and I’d like to speak with Governor Stevenson for at most five minutes about _____. Could we schedule a phone appointment?” (Adjust that, of course; now you might ask if the person would prefer to “speak” by phone or email.)

The last point is that you must be ready to interview the moment you call. That happens maybe 25% of the time, and it scares your shoes off the first time it does. It would be much worse if you weren’t ready!

Why must you be ready every time? Because this time, mid-day, the phone was answered, “Hello, this is Adlai.” He was very articulate, clever, even funny, and it was all over in 10 fast minutes.

That’s it: prep, prep, and call or email. Be no-nonsense charming and to-the-point, let the interviewee talk (you’re not interviewing yourself), laugh when possible, smile as you speak, take notes quickly, and thank the person as you promise to send a copy of the interview the moment it is in print. (Confirm the address.)

No, you don’t need their permission to use what they just said. Nor do they expect to be paid.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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