Over the years, I’ve gotten hundreds of emails asking me how I go about conducting interviews. Well, I’ve heard all your requests, so without further delay, here are…
NEIL’S TOP TEN INTERVIEWING TIPS
1. Whenever possible, don’t start the interview right away. Talk or spend a little time with the subject so they can get comfortable with you. Even if you’re just silently observing them do something else, that’s fine. Think of the subject like a cat: If you approach a cat too quickly, it will run away; let the cat get comfortable with your presence, and it will approach you. (Bonus tip: For celebrities, a common rookie mistake is to ignore the handlers and entourage as soon as the celebrity gets close. Don’t do that: Treat everyone with the same level of focus, interest, and engagement.)
2. Plan your first question carefully: It will set the tone of the whole interview. It should never be so broad that it seems like you have no interest in the person or subject nor so specific that it seems like you’re obsessed.
3. Research everything your subject has done and said. As you do, write out as many questions as you can think of. But, in the interview, never read those questions or even refer to them. Have a comfortable conversation with your subject, but know what you need from them and steer them in that direction when necessary. When the interaction seems more like a natural conversation than a planned interview, you’ll get better answers than anyone else.
4. The #1 trait to have for a successful interview is genuine curiosity. Don’t worry about what your supposed audience wants to know; what you want to know is more important.
5. The #1 trait not to have is a judgmental attitude. When people feel judged, they become defensive. When they are defensive, they do not reveal themselves.
6. In-person interviews are always better. Most of communication is body language. So watch and listen carefully not just to what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it, and you can take the interview to places they’ve never gone before.
7. Always separate someone from their entourage for the interview: You don’t want their publicist or assistant or colleagues or collaborators in the room. Much of the time, the subject will speak for them, not for you. (One rule I always use at Rolling Stone is to never interview a band together: The interviews always go deeper when I talk to each member individually.)
8. Never try to prove yourself in an interview or even come off as an equal–whether the subject is an unknown or a superstar. The interview is all about the subject. And they will trust you, feel comfortable with you, and feel safe with you if you stick to your role, which is, to put it crudely, as a vehicle for the gratification of their ego needs. They may seem to care about you, but what they really care about is how they’re going to look or sound in the end product.
9. Always ask for their direct contact information afterward, so you can follow up to make sure everything is correct. This will allow you to later ask anything you missed or clarify anything that requires it. It will also save you if you don’t heed the following tip.
10. Here’s one I learned the hard way: When I just started at The New York Times in my early twenties, I was given the exclusive with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin when they first reunited. Halfway through the interview, I noticed the audio recorder wasn’t working. When I went to surreptitiously fix it, they caught me and let me have it. So always bring a second audio recorder and leave it running the whole time as a backup. Technology will fail you when you need it most.
Hope these are helpful to you. If you don’t need them at this moment, they may be helpful in the future, so hold on to them. And remember that the art of interviewing is the art of empathy and rapport.
Of course, let me know how these work for you. Send me your great interviews!