When interviewing a CEO or celebrity, the first thing you must do is make friends with his Corporate Communications person or “handler.” Not only will this person most likely sit in on the interview (especially if it’s a public company or if you’re interviewing a celeb), but he/she will be your link for any follow up questions and fact checking. That person is your new best friend, so make sure you keep them in the loop.
Next, your equipment. Unless you take shorthand, you’ll undoubtedly be recording, so make sure your recorder works. Once, I was waiting for Donald Trump in his office and did a quick sound test to discover my tape recorder was dead. I changed the batteries. Still dead. I plugged in the power cord and it worked. Saved! When Trump arrived, he said he’d never seen a journalist use a tape recorder on power. “It’s much safer because the batteries can’t die in the middle of the interview,” I said. (He thought it was a brilliant idea). That afternoon, I ran out and bought TWO digital tape recorders. Now, I always record with both, so if one should fail to record, there’s always a backup.
For any interview, your final product is only as good as your questions, so do your homework. Google him, read any article written about him, ask his office to email his bio. The more you know about him, the better your questions can be. I had an interview recently with Darryl Strawberry – I know nothing about baseball, but he’s written a book, so I could deal with the real issues – his lack of a father, the drugs, what he’s doing now. Baseball had very little to do with it.
As far as your questions are concerned, ask more than you’ll need and think of ways to amortize his answers. Recently, I did an interview with David Rockefeller Jr. for one publication but asked questions on a completely different topic that I sold to a second magazine – with no overlap in his answers.
What happens if your subject skirts the questions or goes off topic with answers you can’t possibly use? This is what separates a good interviewer from a mediocre one. It’s your job to put your subject at ease, especially if he’s difficult. Loosen him up. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll be able to say, “Okay you were born in _____ and grew up in ____. As a kid, what did you want to do when you grew up?” (I always get a smile on that one). Ask him his hobbies, what sports he likes, how many children he has and their ages. Listen carefully to the answers so you can ask more questions based on those answers. Once he knows you’re really listening, you’ve got a much better chance of putting him at ease and getting usable answers to the questions you ask. And remember – VIPs are just as insecure as the rest of us – possibly more so.