'I liken myself to a dentist who is about to do a root canal. And I know they will want some Novocain in advance.'
-- Walter Robinson,
Larry Grobel, at right, with actor Al Pacino.
'I feel insecure if I don’t know everything about the subject I’m going to see.'
-- Larry Grobel,
First things first: Get the interview.
Experienced journalists know that is not always an easy task. Often it takes patience and persistence.
it came to getting Barbara Streisand (for an interview), I spent 17
months or more just trying to get to her,” said Larry Grobel,
Grobel’s persistence paid off and he nailed an interview with Streisand. The issue of Playboy that ran the interview featured Streisand on the cover. That was the first time an interview subject had made the cover of Playboy, Grobel said.
Although Grobel deals with celebrity’s publicists most of the time and doesn’t risk upsetting his interview subjects, he encourages journalists to be persistent in getting an interview, even at the risk of becoming irritating.
“Certain people you give up on, certain people you keep trying. It just depends,” Grobel said, mentioning several failed attempts to get an interview with Frank Sinatra, an interview he was never able to get.
Grobel suggests that if there is an opportunity to have contact with someone interesting or well-known in town, you should attempt to get an interview with him or her. For newbies to the field, getting those interviews might be what launches their career.
Grobel has seized the opportunity with gusto, not only scoring the interview with Barbra Streisand, but also Marlon Brando, Truman Capote and Al Pacino, among others.
“I just did something with Sharon Stone a couple weeks ago,” said Grobel, who is 64.
When you approach someone important and introduce yourself, don’t just ask trivial small-talk questions, Grobel said. Impress them once you’ve got them.
Once you’ve nailed down the interview, prepare, prepare, prepare.
According to Walter Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, you can never be prepared enough for an interview. Spend a lot of time on research and know what you’re going to ask, Robinson said. Don’t let your subject yank you around, he said. If you’re prepared, the subject won’t be able to do that.
“I feel insecure if I don’t know everything about the subject I’m going to see,” Grobel said.
Read every book, every clipping, watch every film on your subject, Grobel said.
The aim is to get a new spin on your subject. That means knowing everything written about and by the person being interviewed.
“If I see the same answers over and over again, I don’t want to ask those questions,” Grobel said.
After serious preparation, it’s time to ease into the interview.
Tim Dwyer, editor of The Day of New London, Conn., agrees that doing research helps get the best story, but he also sees it as a tool to make your subject feel at ease. If you know enough about the interview subject, you can throw in a question related to something outside your topic that they’ve done, Dwyer said.
Like Dwyer, Robinson thinks that you have to connect with your subject and establish a rapport to make the subject feel comfortable.
“I liken myself to a dentist who is about to do a root canal. And I know they will want some Novocain in advance,” Robinson, former editor of The Boston Globe’s investigative team and a professor of journalism at Northeastern University, said.
Don’t only make your subject feel comfortable through conversation; do the interview in an environment that is comfortable for the person being interviewed, Robinson said. Meet the person at home, at his or her office or some other setting where your subject feels the most relaxed, he said.
Grobel said: “You want to go in and within two questions make that person look at you differently and say, ‘Oh, there’s somebody with a mind working here. I’ll talk to that person.’ I think that is what learning to do a good interview is all about.”
Dwyer said one of the most important things to do while interviewing is to listen to what your subject is saying. Let them speak instead of bombarding them with questions.
By listening, you are able to come up with better follow-up questions and create more of a conversation with the interview subject, Dwyer said. That humanizes you to your subject.
Another way to open up a person being interviewed is to “play dumb,” Grobel said. Ask the interviewee to explain things and go more in depth, he said. That tactic can be a catalyst to get more material from your subject.
Dwyer said: “The worst thing you can do is to think you know everything, ’cause you don’t.”
Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t understand something, because, if you don’t, you risk not getting it right, Dwyer said.
Despite all the preparation you’ve done, you still might not have all the facts and the subject might throw you a curveball.
For a reporter, it is important to be able to adapt on the spot, Robinson said. All the questions you planned to ask and the angle you planned to take might now be irrelevant. Make the shift. Most likely the new angle will be a better story.
“A good interview always takes twice as long as you think it will,” Robinson said.
Once you’ve asked all your questions, ask one more.
Always end your questioning
by asking whether the subject would like to add anything or if you have
missed something important.
“No good interview
ever ends,” Robinson said.
“I think it’s really important to understand how to do a good interview, because I think it can help you in all fields,” Grobel said.
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