Celebrity Interviews: Handle With Care
By Susan H. Burnell, APR
I recently interviewed poet, playwright and activist Sonia Sanchez for American Legacy magazine's Spring 2009 issue. After we had
talked for awhile, she began reciting some of her haiku verses to me over the phone in her strong, melodic voice. I put my questions
aside for awhile and just listened.
For the same issue, I interviewed S. Epatha Merkerson, whom you may recognize for her longtime role as Lt. Anita Van Buren on TV’s
Law & Order. We talked about her many career accomplishments, her great sense of humor, and her passion for educating young
people about the dangers of smoking.
Interviewing celebrities and other influential people in business, medicine, art and entertainment is one of the most interesting parts of
my work as a writer. My clients rely on me to treat all interview subjects, famous or not, with respect.
The interviews I do are primarily by phone. They are always businesslike, and the resulting articles or special sections are expected to
have an informative and often upbeat style. (No ambush interviews or gossip, ever!)
A good celebrity phone interview employs techniques that make the most of the subject's time and draw out details that will engage
and inform the audience. The same techniques can work for interviewing busy executives, professors, doctors, authors, government
officials and subject matter experts.
Advance work. If the story is about a prominent person's life or career, look for their bio online. If it's about their company or cause,
read up on that. Use what you learn to develop some intelligent, specific questions.
Prep the publicist. You may have to deal with a PR person or assistant before you get to the interview subject. Make sure you are very
clear about the purpose of the interview, the publication it will appear in, and whether the subject will get to see the article before it is
published. A detailed email works well. Include a link to a sample of the publication online.
Send questions in advance. Some writers will argue that this takes spontaneity out of the interview. I say it makes good use of
everyone's time. Having questions in advance puts your interview subject at ease. It gives them time to think about their answers and
have a few details or anecdotes ready.
Silence, please. Before you get on the phone, mute your computer speakers and any other devices that beep, chime or chirp. Disable
call waiting. Shut your door to discourage interruptions.
Quick intro. When you have your interview subject on the line, introduce yourself and thank them for their time. Address them as Mr. or
Mrs. or Dr. (or other formal title) unless they say you may call them by their first name. Confirm the purpose of the interview and make
sure the subject understands what it will be used for.
Project pleasantness and don't gush. Smile. They won't see it but they will hear it in your voice. If you are a big fan, it's OK to say so,
but keep it brief.
"Please tell me..." is a good way to ease into the questions.
Don't interrupt. Resist the urge to tell YOUR story. I recently interviewed the author of a book on parenting. It took a lot of restraint not to
interject my own experience. It's natural for us to want to do this. But it can sidetrack and prolong an interview. So I kept my mouth shut
and let the author talk while I listened and took notes. A simple "been there" or "I know what you mean" will suffice if you feel the need
to acknowledge a shared experience.
The short answer. When the subject doesn't give enough detail in their answer, draw them out by asking for a specific example.
The long answer. When the subject rambles off-topic, you may be able to get them back on track by rephrasing the question or
paraphrasing their answer back to them. Sidetracks can be revealing, though, so be willing to follow along as you listen for
The quotable quote. In my early days of special section writing, a publisher shared a tip with me. "Ask about the ONE THING," she
said. When you ask about the one thing a person thinks is most important for audiences to know about their life, their career, their
cause or their area of expertise, it will often yield a fresh, succinct quote.
Verify facts and contact info. If you aren't sure, ask for the correct spelling of the subject's name, nickname, middle initial and their
preferred title. Confirm how you (or your fact-checker) can reach them if follow-up is needed. Let them know how to reach you if they
think of something important later.
Thanks and goodbye. Don't promise your subject how much of the interview will end up in the final piece, because you won't know until
the final edit. Say you appreciate the time they've taken out of their day to talk with you. Then say 'bye and get busy writing.
About the author: Susan Burnell, APR is an accredited public relations professional and business writer based in Houston, Texas. Her
work has appeared in Forbes, American Legacy, North Florida Doctor and numerous other publications. While she conducts most of
her interviews, celebrity and otherwise, for print publications, she has also recorded video interviews and podcasts. For more
information visit www.inkspark.net
Business Writing & Public Relations
Business Writing & Public Relations