Interviews are essential for writing case studies, or other content that requires a more personal or technical touch. But they require a certain knack.
I was talking to the marketing manager of a technology firm last week. She asked me about interviews that go wrong. My experience is (perhaps surprisingly) that very few interviews are wasted. Generally people are interesting. I like talking to experts in any field and I'm pretty curious about things.
The best interviews are like really intense, slightly one-sided conversations (you talk more than me, otherwise what's the point) where interesting insights and observations emerge. If I'm doing my job then you'll end up coming up with the goods.
However, interviews do fall below their potential sometimes and here are some of the reasons why, at least in my experience.
- I'm insufficiently prepared. Usually I haven't researched enough.
- Technical difficulties with my call recorder, dictaphone or PC distract me.
- Someone else calls or interrupts me while I'm in the interview.
- I'm tired. It's the end of a long day and I've done twenty interviews. I try to schedule people who I think will talk on autopilot or be extra-interesting for the end of the day but sometimes after eight or ten interviews I sort of lose the will to live.
- I haven't had enough tea. Try to avoid scheduling interviews with me before 10am.
- (Rarely, I think) I get a diary failure and call at the wrong time. A typical article will require a dozen or so interviews and each one requires half a dozen emails. I'm usually working on a bunch of assignments at once. I don't have a secretary so it sometimes happens that I slip up with all this. If this happened to you, I'm sorry.
- The urge comes upon me. Sometimes (again, rarely) I get the urge to dig into some random, peripheral topic and pursue it like dog with a bone. This gets people's defences up and, in turn, I sense their anxiety as defensiveness and redouble my efforts. It's a bit of a vicious spiral.
- You didn't turn up. About one in five of my pre-arranged phone interviews fail to happen because the interviewee forgets or doesn't take the call. I try to avoid face to face interviews, mainly because the same failure rate occurred but instead of wasting five minutes trying to get someone, I've wasted hours schlepping to the interview place.
- You get distracted or interrupted. Typical problems: mobile phone calls, Blackberries, meeting room intrusions.
- You're on a cell phone and you keep going into tunnels or you're on a train. Don't do interviews on your cell phone. It sounds like an efficient use of time but it's actually a monumental pain in the arse for me.
- You get your timing wrong. One airline executive promised me an hour long interview and ended up giving me fifteen minutes. This is why they got a one page article instead of a three page article. They probably wouldn't have got anything if the magazine hadn't already commissioned photos.
- Two interviewees are not better than one. A common PR belief is that if they can get two people into the interview, it will be better. Wrong! It makes my job harder - I have to figure out who is saying what and attribute each quote. Since I transcribe all my interviews in full, this is an extra burden for me and if I'm confused I can't use the quote. Also, only one person can talk at a time so I still only get one interview's worth of stuff.
- You talk rubbish. This rarely happens but I get very journalist-cynical when people talk up their achievements or glibly puff up their business. "I was the CEO's right-hand man" - so why didn't we see your name in the FT? "We doubled our turnover in a year" - against what baseline? Etc. Get my hackles up and I do get quite Paxman.
- You're boring. Sometimes, perhaps one interview in a hundred, I get someone who could bore for England. Either they stick to their script (too much media training) or their expertise (too much detail) and the interview becomes a genuinely painful experience. I know this is happening because I find myself repeating the same question two or three times and getting the same answer. Generally the best thing to do here is to end the interview as soon as possible. It's surprising how few people are genuine bores when they talk naturally about a subject they know well.