1. Listen. I can’t stress that enough. It’s amazing how few journalists do this. Watch body language, the face, and especially the eyes. Pay very close attention. This will also tell you when the other person is getting tired and when you need to wrap things up. Keep within the time you have (unless the other person really wants to talk). Choose an interview location where the other person feels comfortable. Try to avoid sterile environments such as recording studios and boardrooms. (Cafes and restaurants work very well.) Be absolutely sure that the interviewee has eaten. Publicists sometimes forget about the human need to eat. So if the other person is famished, be sure get her fed before you talk. Buy the other person a drink if he really needs to loosen up, but don’t drink yourself. Unless the other person is a bit nervous and the conversational environment calls for social solidarity or minor debauchery. Be sure to tie your questions into what the person has already said, particularly on subjects that the other person gets very excited about, so that you can maintain a continuous thread.
2. Be genuinely excited and interested in what the other person has to say. I’m not talking fake excited. You’re not a fucking brand. You’re doing this because you like to do it. You really want to talk with this person. So you’d better be curious. If you’re not, you’re a charlatan. Don’t conduct an interview if you can’t stand the author or if you didn’t care for the latest book. (It took me about 150 shows to figure that last point out.) If you don’t care for the person you’re talking with, then the only reason you should be there is because you are immensely curious and interested in that person’s perspective or the ideas she is promulgating. If you’re writing the interview up for an outlet, avoid those hackneyed personal details (“He downed a beer when the conversation shifted to Spinoza”) unless the moment is really interesting and specifically relates to the conversation.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions, but present them in the friendliest possible manner. Civil disagreement is possible. Be familiar with the Socratic method. Don’t be afraid to be a little theatrical. (The other person may very well be theatrical with you, and some very fun silliness will ensue.) If the person doesn’t want to answer the question, move quickly to the next one. Maintain conversational momentum, no matter what.
4. You cannot plan a conversation in advance. Learn how to improvise. Improvisation often results in the best conversational moments. (See Dick Cavett’s moment with Norman Mailer.) Make the interview a conversation. Become highly familiar with the following interviewers: Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder, Mike Wallace, Terry Gross, Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, Michael Silverblatt, Bob Costas (Later segments), et al. Study what makes these conversations work (or not) and what makes these interviews interesting. But don’t emulate these people. Learn from these folks. Be yourself. David Letterman, contrary to popular belief, is not your role model. You’re having a conversation, not participating in a junket.
5. Maintain eye contact when you ask those pivotal first few questions. Don’t look down at your question list during the opening minutes. You’re a talker, not a reader. You want to communicate to the other person very early on that you’re intimately familiar with her work and that you’re very much interested in being there.
6. Read and listen to other interviews with the person you’ll be talking with. Note the questions asked. Strike the commonly asked questions off your list. You want a unique interview, right? Find several angles that nobody else has thought to bring up. These angles exist. You just have to do the work. Do serious preparation and research, and you’ll be ahead of 90% of other interviewers. Don’t rely on a research team.
7. When someone’s been on the interviewing circuit a very long time, she’s going to have a certain boilerplate. Learn how to recognize boilerplate in conversation and learn how to steer the other person off boilerplate with highly specific queries. Encourage the person to be thoughtful, goofy, and spontaneous. Also keep in mind that your questions may not be as unique as you think they are. Keep in mind that these folks have heard it all. Don’t try to be special. Don’t strive to do the “ultimate” interview. Great interviews happen by accident. Just do the best job you can and stay relaxed. Serious preparation and practice will stand you in good stead.
8. Don’t do too many interviews. You’ll burn out quick. And don’t just do interviews. Have at least four other fun things that you’re doing. One of the reasons why so many great interviewers fizzle out is because they are asked to do five or more interviews a week. Don’t do this. Try not to do more than one or two interviews a week. Take long breaks from time to time. Interviews require energy. Make sure that you do plenty of other activities that have nothing to do with interviewing and that have nothing to do with your expertise.
9. Have fun and, for goodness sake, don’t take yourself so seriously. Even when you’re having a conversation about a serious subject. Don’t be humorless. Humor goes a long way in making a conversation fun — both for the interviewee and the people who read or listen to the interview. Also, don’t make any assumptions about how the conversation is going to go. It may go well. It may be okay. It may not go well. Your job is to do the best that you can with the time and the resources you have at your disposal. And if you’re having fun, you’ll be more relaxed. And you’re going to want to be relaxed so that the other person will feel relaxed. Remember that fun can be quite contagious.
10. If the interview fails, it’s your fault. Not the other person’s. Yours. You failed to attract interest. You failed to read the cues. You failed to engage the other person. And you’re going to fail sometimes. No matter how good you are, you’re going to have a few stinkers. (Case in point: There are four interviews I’ve conducted that I never posted.) If the interview fails, don’t dwell on it. Pick yourself off the ground and kick some ass on the next one.