Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mastering the Feature Interviewee

Part 2 of this story series ...

So you've been assigned what we in the industry call a "puff piece," or, to put it another way, "a thumb sucker" -- the simplistic feature profile.

But is it really that simple?

A lot of "serious journalists" I know get these stories and immediately assume that this is one of the easiest pieces to write. Perhaps it's because features, unlike hard news stories, connote feelings of good will between the interviewer and interviewee. And in that case, my colleagues would be correct about its facileness.

But have you ever had an editor say to you, "This lead is flat?"

Basically, what they're telling you (in a phrase that equates to: "This sucks.") is that you haven't captured the essence of the person. You haven't made us want to read more. This copy is just filler, nothing more. Couldn't you have done something better to rub some sparkle into it?

If you approach the feature interviewee with this shoulder-shrug attitude, your story WILL be boring, and no one will read it past the first sentence.

So how do you master the feature interviewee? Here are some thoughts:

1) Get serious about story prep. Research, research, research this person before you walk into their realm and ask them questions. The more you know about someone beforehand, the more likely you'll begin to care about who they really are. And face it. Caring is the central component here.

2) Put the person at ease. If they're nervous about being interviewed or if they don't look at "the media" in a favorable light, you're going to get a lot of stilted one-word answers and superficial replies. So right at the get go, make sure this person knows you're a friend, not an enemy. You're there simply to tell a story. What I normally do is start off with saying a simple word: Thank you. I thank every person for spending time with me, for making an effort to clear their busy schedule to chat, for being willing to share with the readers their insights or experiences. I let them know that my readers will derive great benefit from their story -- and I do this even if I'm interviewing a child. People appreciate that idea, and you'll find that the stiff body language will soften. Soon, you'll get the answers you desire.

3) Use positive body language. Smile a lot. Laugh. Even if you're on the phone and they can't see you smiling, your positive vibes will come through to them. No one likes to talk to a grouch. So be nice, and your story will begin to take shape even as you type the person's words while they talk.

4) Decide in advance that you care. If you go into a story like this with the attitude that this is just a simple slam dunk assignment, your story WILL be boring. Convince yourself before you meet with the interviewee that your editor gave you this piece for a good reason (even if you don't see it). Then work like crazy to find out that reason for yourself. When you care about something genuinely, the questions will become profound, and the interviewee will sense that you have their interests at heart.

5) Don't let the interviewee's nervousness derail the interview. Be professional but courteous. If you're doing an interview where you're the one who is nervous (have you ever interviewed a celebrity?), then get a grip! This person is a regular person, just like you, although they may have accomplished fame in one way or another. So focus on what you have in common with them, and the rest will fall into place.

Now what if your interviewee is the subject of a controversial issue or news story? That requires another approach altogether. Tune in for part 3 of this series.

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