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The trials and tribulations of an interview
(or: How not to make a hockey goalie cry)
It seems simple. You sit down with someone, have the most extraordinary interview, and then convert it into an even more extraordinary article or podcast.
Switch back to reality. Ten minutes in, you find yourself out of conversation topics, face-to-face with an increasingly irritated subject who is replying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to all your questions, or someone (in my case, a hockey goalie) who bursts out crying because you unknowingly asked the one question you should not have asked.
All of the above have happened to me. Some interviews were even worse (but you’ll have to bribe me with a slice of strudel to hear them).
The second most important thing I have learned in my 10+ years as a sports and business journalist (the first is to always carry a pen), is that interviewing people is a lot more complicated than it seems. To this day, I continue to learn (hockey players no longer run away from me in tears), sometimes fail, and always enjoy every minute of it.
Below are the five most important lessons I picked up about interviewing over the years. I hope you will find them helpful as you embark on this most wonderful adventure of trying to speak to fascinating individuals and bring out their unique voices in a world of billions.
1. Be flexible
The first thing I do when preparing for an interview is to find out as much as I can about my interview subject. This includes looking at their social media accounts to find any anecdotes or other interesting tidbits that can serve as ice breakers or reveal more about the person’s personality (don’t overdo it though).
As I research, I write down potential topics I want to discuss with the interviewee. Then I look back at my paper and try to form these ideas into questions and order them in a way I see the conversation going.
All the questions and topics should fit on one piece of paper for easy reference. This piece of paper helps me to start the interview (this part is usually the trickiest), but once the conversation starts flowing, I only refer to it to check that I am covering the topics I wanted to discuss or, if my mind suddenly goes blank, to put myself back on track.
The questions should not be read off the paper verbatim, unless of course you want your subject to feel like they’re strapped to a lie detector. Rather, listen to their replies, ask follow up questions and when you’ve exhausted those (or you feel time is running short), turn back to the outline. Be adventurous – mix and match, change the order, explore new topics. Always keep an open mind. You might discover a lot more than what your research suggested.
2. Give them the home advantage
Make the interviewee comfortable. Pick a spot that is quiet and private, where your subject feels at ease. This is different for everyone. The skiers I interview are most comfortable when they are out on a sunny patio after a race, but business executives tend to feel more in control in their offices. Whenever possible, let your interview subject speak on their home turf.
And don’t forget about your own comfort either. A few years back, I somehow ended up interviewing an Olympic swimming champion about the darkest days of his career while he was getting massaged by a burly Ukrainian physiotherapist. He certainly looked comfortable with the set up. I would rather have been somewhere else, preferably also getting a massage.
3. Don’t stress
I used to get nervous before interviews, but then I realized that my subjects were probably much more nervous than I was. Chances are, I’ve taken more interviews than they have given interviews. And if they have given many interviews, that means they’ve already seen the worst. The worst that ever happened to me at an interview was a hockey player flinging his stick into a crowd of journalists I was standing with, and I am fairly certain that will not happen to you.
In short, don’t get nervous. When you get nervous, your subjects get nervous. And when your subjects get nervous the interview will be painfully awkward. The best way to overcome nerves is to stage the interview as a friendly conversation between two, probably equally nervous, people rather than a battle of wits. That’s when people will start to open up to you.
4. Be the captain of your ship
At the same time, beware of the Friend Zone. If the conversation gets too casual, once you listen to the interview recording, you may realise you don’t have a single usable quote. That could work in a podcast (although not always), but is a definite downfall if you are writing.
Remember, you are the interviewer. They are the interviewee. Don’t let them get too sidetracked. While you should try to maintain a friendly tone, make sure to address the subject areas you jotted down on your paper. Your audience wants to learn about them.
5. Be genuinely interested
Human relations guru Dale Carnegie said it first and, a century later, it is just as relevant. It is not enough to ask questions and hope that the answers will be interesting to your audience. Be the person who is genuinely interested in the answers. Every person has stories to tell. Think what a privilege it is that you can give these speakers a voice and share their stories with others.
If you remember just one lesson from the five above, let it be this.
Lena Smirnova, Senior Writer
Lena Smirnova is a business and sports reporter with more than 12 years of experience in journalism as a writer, editor, producer and news service manager.
She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of British Columbia, which she completed with a gold medal. Her career highlights as a sports journalist include covering three Olympic and Paralympic Games, the 2018 FIFA World Cup, two Youth Olympic Games, two Pan and Parapan American Games, the European Games and the Rugby World Cup. Lena has interviewed athletes in English, Russian, French, and Spanish.
As a business journalist, Lena has covered the real estate, retail, environment, marketing and technology beats for English-language publications in Russia. She has also worked as the editor of the environment and arts sections in a daily newspaper.
Lena enjoys learning languages and hopes to say fünftausendsechshundertsiebenundneunzig in under 20 seconds some day.