How NOT To Interview Someone

Banana Interview, possibly by Banksy, Cans Festival London. Photo by Jo Barton.

Last night I interviewed Danielle LaPorte for a guest post I’m writing for Write To Done. A few minutes in, I thought:

wow. I am really NOT doing this right, or well.

I’m awkward. I’m a bombshell in text but shell-shocked in person, and my darlings, I bombed this interview. I was abrupt and awkward and interrupt-y. The only thing that saved it was my subject.

Danielle LaPorte gives good quote.

Two Different Kinds Of Un-journalism

Earlier in the week, I interviewed Josh Hanagarne for the same forthcoming piece. My interview with Josh went sideways, too, but not in the same way.

That interview with got wayward and unruly and sprawled across the couch like a long-legged, lazy teenager. And then it emptied my fridge and drank all the milk and after that I’m pretty sure I agreed to co-write a useless e-book or a manifesto or learn German or read Proust or have a baby or something that’s going to take a mofo lot of time.

(Note to Janette Hanagarne: There will be no baby. I don’t even like your husband like that. Swear.)

Still, I was in this interview rather than on top of it so maybe it was a win. I got good, useable, quotable stuff AND a new project. That is good. My journalistic focus, professionalism, and objectivity: not so good.

This is okay with me because objectivity is a myth at best and at worst just weak. It is pretentious – who can write without a point of view?? who would want to read that??? – and results in split the difference journalism.

Split the Difference Journalism

Arianna Huffington says that the essence of vivid journalism lies in “getting away from the notion that truth is found by splitting the difference between the two sides, that there is always truth to both sides.”

In other words: get a point (of view). Split the difference journalism is staid.

Split the difference journalism is tepid and disingenuous. It requires you to camoflage your point of view in service of our golden calfs, Critical Thinking and Objectivity. It’s crap. It’s officious. I know because I wrote some officious crap when I was trying to be objective. My review of Lessons from the Fatosphere, for example, is bullshit. Utter bullshit. “Pretty good book”, my ass.

Truth is, I loved the book. I love Marianne Kirby and Kate Harding. How could I be objective? Why should I? How is it more honest to find fault just to find fault? How is that kind of review more honest or balanced than when you make no secret of your passion or your perspective?

(Dear Readers: You MUST read Lesson from the Fat-o-Sphere. Go now and buy it.)

Observation 1. Trying to be objective and A Journalist makes me lie. I doubt this is unique to me.

Observation 2. Split the difference journalism: blech.

Observation 3. I was a mess when I interviewed both Josh and Danielle, but in two completely different ways. What gives?

Interviews. Journalism. What the Eff is My Problem?

When I interviewed Danielle, I had questions; I knew the story; I had a script; I had my journalism hat on. What could be the problem?

In short: all of the above.

I was so focussed on getting through the interview, and getting the questions answered, that I didn’t stay in the interview. I started it like it was already half-way finished. I tried to sell the house while neglecting to the basic housekeeping like introducing the piece, it’s working title, and where and when it will appear. That’s just bad manners.

What else did I do wrong? What would I do, differently and better, next time?

Oh, my darlings, I’m so glad you asked. I now have a list. It is not short but I’ll give you the short, bleedingly urgent version. I embrace public humiliation in order to save you from the same fate. How very JC of me.

How To Interview Someone Better than I Did. The List.

  1. When you’re organizing the interview, be clear about how much time you need and how much time can be offered. That way you can plan an appropriate number of questions and won’t need to rush through. Allow time to digress a little.
  2. Introduce yourself and the purpose of the interview. Give a little background. State the name of piece.
  3. Explain how you’re capturing the interview: recording? notes? photographic memory? Wishbone?
  4. Chat. Enjoy. Connect.
  5. Don’t be a slave to the script. Your interview questions are just the start. They’re there when you need them. But a really great, revealing, interesting interview results from the connection, the wandering, the digression. Follow the breadcrumbs. Eat them.
  6. Have faith that you’ll get something you can use. Don’t be so outcome oriented that you are half out of the interview before it gets going. In other activities it is called foreplay.
  7. Chat. Enjoy. Connect. Digress.
  8. Be in the interview (and the universe!), not outside of it or worse, on top of it.
  9. Fuck professional, boring, faux-objective journalism. What’s your objective in conducting the interview? To get a story so you can tell a story. Stories are based on an experience. You want your interviewee to give it up, get naked and give you great quote, so you need to go there too. Do it. Mmmmm.
The Real Story. That’s What Interviews Are About.
Once upon a time, I had a long and steamy online flirtation with a hot man. When we finally met, I couldn’t get it together. I really liked him so I couldn’t say a damn thing. It was too high-stakes. I wanted a specific outcome too intensely to relax. I got frustrated – with myself – and blurted out the great blurt of all blurts:

I wish we could just fuck and get it over with so I wouldn’t be so tongue-tied and shy.

I know. I’m classy. I understand that some people frown on sex as an icebreaker. I absolutely accept the validity of that position. Really, I do. Because the truth is, real – not sex – is the ice breaker. Real is what you need to get, to get connected.

Interviews are much the same except that I’m not looking for great sex (swear!), I’m looking for a great story.

Five $&*#ing Lessons I Learned from Being a Bad Interviewer
  1. Fuck journalism.
  2. Fuck objectivity. It is a lie, anyway.
  3. Fuck my pretensions (please).
  4. Be human. Give some love. Show up. Keep it up.
  5. Mistakes are surprisingly nutritious.

So, as a direct result of my how-not-to-interview debacles, that’s the how-to-interview list. Now, to turn back time.

Except, of course, I don’t really want to turn back time. I prefer to eat my mistakes whole which is just good advice. I did it today.

Today, I was on the other side of the interview. I was the subject. I was trying to land a new writing gig and the interviewer asked me: how are you at interviewing people?

I was honest. I got real. I said:

You know what? I cocked it up last night. Here’s why. Here’s what I learned. Here’s what I’m gonna do better next time…

(Note: I realize that some people think that saying ‘cocked up’ in an interview is inappropriate. I totally accept the validity of that position. Really, I do.)

The gig: I got it.
The guy: he loved me long time.

Real. It works. And that’s how you interview someone.


My interview with Danielle was for an accidentally epic how-to-get-a-book deal series with from advice from published authors to a wannabe (that’s me). Here’s a list of all the pieces in that monster series.

The how-to-get-a-book-deal piece, in full:

How to Get a Book Deal. An Evolutionary, Biblical Approach. (This Is Why I am a Writer And Not a Scientist.)

The How To Get A Book Deal Interviews, with:

Chris Guillebeau (Art of Non-Conformity): How To Get A Book Deal. Thirteen Questions with Chris Guillebeau.

Erin Doland (Unclutterer): How To Get A Book Deal. Thirteen Questions with Erin Doland (of UnClutterer and Author of UnClutter Your Life in One Week)

Leo Babauta (Zen Habits): How To Get A Book Deal: 13 Questions with Zen Habit’s Leo Babauta

* I also did phone-interviews with Josh Hanagarne and Gretchen Rubin but get very, very sad when I think about doing more transcription

**My phone interview with Gretchen Rubin – in which she gave me some personal advice that really landed with me – inspired me to be a little nicer, online. Gretchen Rubin is my Jiminy Cricket.

Guest Posts at Write To Done (these triggered this whole series):

Guest Post at Write to Done: How to Get a Book Deal: Part 1 – Printasauraus Rex Vs. The Blog: Publishing 2.0

Get Thee A Blog, and A Big One: Guest Post At Write to Done

About the author

Kelly Diels I'm Kelly Diels. I'm a writer. I've written for Salon, Jezebel, XO Jane, Problogger, Write to Done and more. I'm currently working on a book about The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand. Interested? Please subscribe to my newsletter and I'll share more thoughts and chapters with you as I write them. You can also find me on Facebook and yes please, please do.