Being Interviewed

A reader asked, "How do I best prepare for an interview?" Here's what I recommend.

  • Compile a list of questions you could be asked. Depending on who you are, you could be asked about your role, motives, vision, business, products, competitors, family, relationships, and relevant news stories, including controversies. Read both articles and interviews in the publication, and consider the material that publication prefers to cover. For example, Playboy and the Financial Times aren't interested in the same material.
  • Prepare your answers in writing. If you received questions before the interview, answer those questions as well, and think about follow-up questions that could be asked. The basic structure of an adequate answer is a single declarative statement followed by three supporting examples and a final declarative statement reinforcing the first. For broadcast interviews, say no more than this. For print, feel free to elaborate, but get to the point quickly and stay on point. Also ensure that your declarative statements are short, memorable, and express your message clearly. These statements are likely to be laid out as pull quotes.
  • Rehearse your answers ahead of the interview. But do not memorize them unless you can act! You want to come across as authentic. You don't want to sound like you're reading from a script. An interview is a conversation — a directed conversation but a conversation nonetheless. Let the conversation flow naturally and evolve organically. Robotic and awkward interviews are tough to watch and difficult to conduct. Interviewers should never feel like they're "pulling teeth;" they're partly to blame if they do but cagey answers don't help.
  • Be deliberate about word choice. For broadcast, dead air will cause the interviewer to move on; air time is extremely costly in terms of both money and viewers. For print, if you have to pause to think of the right word, do so; you have a captive audience. Avoid experimenting with phrasing. You want your interview to be easy to transcribe, and you want the transcription to be straightforward to edit. Transcription and editing can be expensive, and that cost is attached to the price of interviewing you. If you have any interest in being regularly interviewed by the same publication for either features or quotes, don't be an expensive interview.
  • Be mindful of the clock. For broadcast, say what you need to say, get your message out, and shut up. Brevity is next to godliness; the longer you speak, the less you seem to know. If you ramble or dawdle, there's a solid chance you won't get invited back and you're likely to be cut off, which is embarrassing. For print, you and your interviewer should have scheduled a block of time for the interview. You have other work to do and so too does the interviewer. Be punctual. If you want to continue past the allotted time or need to reschedule, ask the interviewer if that would be acceptable, or suggest another block of time during which to resume the interview.
  • Understand the editorial process. Some of your answers will be cut or shortened. Good content is often thrown out with bad content for time and/or space. The interviewer usually does not want to make you look bad; the interviewer wants to take pride in the interview and showcase that work. Help your interviewer by being interesting, not merely informative. You're doing an interview. You're not writing a textbook.
  • Don't try to limit the scope before the interview. The interviewer may very well blindside you by asking restricted questions anyway, questions you didn't prepare for because you thought you were safe. If you are asked a question you don't want to answer, you can offer an answer from which follow-up questions would lead either nowhere or nowhere interesting, or gently guide the conversation to another topic. Better yet, use the opportunity to address the question in exactly the way you want. Whatever you choose to do, don't walk out.
  • Never ever tell the interviewer you won't answer further questions because, for example, you want to save those answers for a book or movie about your "life story," especially near the end of a long interview after the interviewer has already spent a lot of time and money on you. Your interview will be excised — or worse. If you have an interest in delivering your story in another format, continuing the interview will help you think through content for your book or movie on which you can elaborate in far greater detail later.
  • Sleep well before the interview. You want to be alert and responsive. If you're tired, do everyone including yourself a favor and reschedule. If you try to power through, you'll be sluggish, your words won't come out right, and you'll be grouchy and snap at the interviewer. If you try to substitute a caffeine high for wakefulness, you'll be jittery and nervous. Trust me: that's a bad idea. Don't sabotage yourself.

Finally, if you follow these guidelines, your interviewer can be a resource for you going forward. They can make valuable recommendations. They can become your coauthor, your ghostwriter, or your regular interviewer. They may also be willing to coach you on what you can do better in future interviews. Avoid burning that bridge.

Interviewing Entrepreneurs

Most startups, especially small enterprises, are immensely personal endeavors. Entrepreneurs feel the tremendous weight of every decision. While the right moves at the very least bring about one more day in business, a single wrong move can spell disaster for the people involved.

And, yet, startups are treated by outsiders, especially the financial press, politicians, and critics, as paths to equitable returns, engines of innovation, or symbols of corporate greed. When interviewing founders, one should remember what they, as human beings, have sacrificed, or will sacrifice, for not just success but their dreams.

Here are some of the best questions to ask entrepeneurs…

  • How has the startup impacted your family, social life, or relationships? Have you become more cognizant of the quality of life needs of your employees?
  • If you sold your company today, what would be the tone of that conversation? What would you want to gain? What would you want to avoid losing?
  • Many entrepreneurs are forced to leave their companies. How would you feel if you found yourself in that situation? What would you do?

But the most revealing question could be quite a bit simpler: "How has your day been?"

I have asked these questions in my interviews. One of my favorite answers was given by Ken Williams, cofounder of Sierra On-Line. The answer was unexpected, to say the least.

Williams: […] It was also a problem for our family. There were no private schools, and the public school in Oakhurst, where we were based, was rated among the lowest in California. None of our children's peer group seemed interested in college. We had moved to Yosemite in 1980, but by 2003, it was clearly time to leave if we wanted the company to succeed—as well as our family!

Ramsay: With a family of your own, were you more cognizant of the more human needs of your employees? Did this influence how you thought about "the Sierra way"?

Williams: The sad truth is that I was not much influenced by family. Both Roberta and I are workaholics. If I'm awake, I am generally at my computer. I have been retired for 13 years, but I still try to write some code every day.

My philosophy of business has always been that business is war. You need to decide if you want to win or lose, but there isn't an option to just show up. To beat the other guy, you need to get there sooner, hire better people, work harder, start earlier, focus on every detail, and have all of the luck you can get. I can't remember ever taking my sons to a baseball game. I never coached any team for the kids or went to a PTA meeting. I prided myself on trying to go weeks without small talk with my secretary.

We were young, and wild parties did occur, but these were exceptions. At Sierra, my "business is war" attitude generally prevailed, and anyone who needed family time didn't understand the problem.

As an aside, there is truth in retirement. The most self-honest answers come from those who had time and distance to reflect. Ken Williams has been retired for more than 20 years, exposed to the elements on his yacht. Working founders, however, are still living and breathing "in the moment," unaware of their blind spots and charging toward what could be only the illusion of destiny.

"Jeff Stibel wrote […] that entrepreneurship is a disease. I have the disease, and part of the disease is not seeing the world for what it is."
Jason Rubin, cofounder of Naughty Dog and vice president of content at Oculus VR

The State of the Interview

In my last post, I called out Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Haley and his 1966 interview in which he was able to capture the time and place through not only his first questions but his 547-word narrative introduction to "the fanatical führer of the American Nazi Party," partially quoted below. The final Q&A itself was comprised of 117 questions and weighed in 11,712 words.

Warned about my Negritude, he registered no surprise nor did he smile, speak or offer to shake hands. Instead, after surveying me up and down for a long moment, he motioned me peremptorily to a seat, then sat down himself in a nearby easy chair and watched silently while I set up my tape machine. Rockwell already had one of his own, I noticed, spinning on a nearby table. Then, with the burly guard standing at attention about halfway between us, he took out a pearl-handled revolver, placed it pointedly on the arm of his chair, sat back and spoke for the first time: "I'm ready if you are." Without any further pleasantries, I turned on my machine.

Nevermind the interview; the introduction alone is longer than many articles today. Wow!

In this post, I discuss the state of the interview, specifically the longform interview, and why I think the conversations we are having with celebrities are getting shorter.

I believe there are three main reasons:

  • there is less space because there is more content overall;
  • there is less money coming into publishers, so there is less money going out to writers; and
  • many publishers and editors thumb their noses at the Q&A.

Less space

Many publishers believe readers' attention spans are dwindling, if they are reading at all.

On last night's controversial episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, former Google ethicist Tristan Harris, promoting his nonprofit Time Well Spent, argued that technology companies like Facebook hack the consumer brain to stake their claims in "the attention economy." The consequences of which include a trend toward people distributing more and more of their attention across many interests. A number of other similarly incentivized experts agree.

"The moral rot in this country began when corporate America decided it wasn't enough to just successfully sell your product; people needed to be addicted to it."
Bill Maher, Real Time with Bill Maher, June 2, 2017

For publishers, this business-driven assumption—that is, they see the money that rolls into those technology companies and want their piece—fundamentally reshapes editorial agendas, turning sometimes once-honored publications into little more than sensationalist Tumblr feeds. In those feeds, there is little space for longform, investigative content.

If you have read my work, you might be thinking, "But, Morgan, you do realize you have published some very, very long interviews, right?" I do realize that. I have many interviews between 30,000 and 80,000 words, or 20 to 50 times the lengths of most Q&As, but I have a certain freedom with space and time as an author that I do not have as a features writer.

When I have worked as a features writer, editors have given me length targets of between 1,500 and 3,000 words, of which the latter I have been told would be on the long side. These are editors, by the way, of online publications where space is not limited by advertising dimensions and printing costs. This suffocating spotlight for exploring subjects is only smaller in print. I was once asked by a magazine editor if I would work with just 400 words for an entire interview.

I do not know, personally, what type of interview I could produce in 400 words, and I have just enough self-respect to not find out! Interviews that readers will remember an hour, a week, or a year later absolutely need room to breathe, and if the publication cannot provide that space, they cannot secure the kind of profound, humanist content that interviews offer.

Less money

Freelance writers in media are paid by the word or at very humble fixed rates. How much time can a writer reasonably spend on an 400-word article worth 10 cents per word? Some editors even have the audacity to offer only $100 (or less!) for a 3,000-word article.

Successful writers have publications aplenty listed in their biographies, and not because they are prolific—a common adornment for writers opposite their natural state. They must split their time and focus between assignments for different outlets to eek out some semblance of a living wage.

I would love to complain freelancers are not paid what they are worth, and that is generally true, but let us be honest about the work. The content they are asked to produce to generate a few thousand views will not win any awards or turn around failing publishers.

And what content is that? Shortform articles filling time between the odd feature, news about nothing devoid of expert analysis, and games of 10 or 20 questions teasing out not any unrealized truths or accountability but rather marketing messages designed to titillate sales. Trade journalism is often made an extension of the corporate subjects it should investigate, reliant on the buzz-building expertise of more highly paid j-school graduates to drive traffic.

In their struggle to reduce costs and keep the lights on, publishers ultimately ask editors, not explicitly but through fiscal responsibility, to produce content at a minimum level of quality that won't push readers away. But that minimum level of quality also won't attract new readers.

Publishing is a business, but yet another where those in control of the purse strings are so averse to risk they seal their fates by not investing in content that will grow their business.

Less respect

Despite my experience as an interviewer, I do not think so highly of my work I am convinced I can do no more to develop my craft. In 2013, I sought out the best interviewers by reputation for their advice, and I chanced upon a writer named Lawrence Grobel, and asked whether he was aware of any "master classes in interviewing." He introduced me to his book, The Art of the Interview.

In that book, Larry asked his colleagues what they thought about writing profiles versus writing interviews. The answers are revealing about where the Q&A stands.

Some editors think narrative writing requires more skill than interviewing.

"[Q&As] are easier to execute and harder to screw up than profiles."
Kevin Cook, sports editor and author of Tommy's Honor

Some editors think interviewers are less-than-writers.

"I think [the Q&A] is an underused and generally undervalued form. In fact, I once had an editor—who will remain nameless—tell me I should be paid less than the standard rate by his publications 'because Q&As aren't writing.'"
Kristine McKenna, music critic and author of Book of Changes

Some editors think so little of interviews that "anyone can do them."

"I believe many editors think of [Q&As] as stories on the cheap. They also live under the illusion that anyone can do them—including sometimes themselves."
Claudia Dreifus, author of Scientific Conversations and Interview

It is not so surprising then that longform interviews seem to be on the way out. I have observed editors and readers alike calling profiles "interviews," and online publications tagging their profiles as "interviews" to aid those seeking profiles find what they believe to be otherwise. Some readers and reviewers have even expressed confusion about the question-answer structure of my interviews, as though this time-honored format was a peculiar stylistic choice.

The profile abounds, but the profile speaks more to the writer than the actual subject. The profile, like the best documentaries, has a perspective. The voice of the subject is drowned out by the writer's own voice, reinterpreting the subject through the lens of inexperience.

"I get sick of how a lot of them [critics] write whole columns and pages of big words and still ain't saying nothing. If you have spent your life getting to know your business and the other cats in it, and what they are doing, then you know if a critic knows what he's talking about. Most of the time they don't."
Miles Davis, the jazz legend in the first Playboy interview, September 1962

As one of the last bastions of longform content, the profile is a poor substitute for what we gain from hearing directly from astronauts, business leaders, sports figures, and other celebrities.

In a protest of sorts, I have taken to describing interviews as profiles in conversation, unvarnished explorations of human stories. The best interviews offer readers a journey into the hearts and minds of individuals, and allow readers to judge what they discover without the writer's commentary. But I will leave the interview's defense to this Grammy Award winner:

"Q&As allow the subject to speak in depth and in his or her own words. They retain the voice of the subject. There's more. Good Q&As ask the questions that readers would want to ask and in addition the ones that most readers would never think of. It's a very satisfying dynamic when it's done well. […] Q&As are satisfying in another way. After reading a good Q&A, we feel as if we participated in an engaging conversation—entertaining, instructive, or both."
David Sheff, author of the #1 New York Times Best Seller Beautiful Boy

Conclusion

With less space, less money, and less respect for the craft, interviews, if editors deem them worth conducting, are brief and quick. A friend and former CNN bureau chief told me he accumulated tens of thousands of interviews in his career. Broadcast interviews range between a few seconds to a few minutes long, and aim to extract juicy sound bites that can be replayed for audiences 24/7. Honestly, that is not too different from the 10/20 Questions interview.

It is a rare thing in this shortform media environment that a writer would, for example, spend ten days on a private island with Marlon Brando, as Grobel once did. Instead, interviews are 10-minute phone conversations, or more frequently, the product of what are effectively e-mailed surveys. The opportunity to capture the time and place of the conversation is missed, and so too the means to establish why having that conversation was important then and there.

Are these challenges insurmountable? What can we do? As readers, we must demand, from the publications that receive our attention, content that provokes criticism, inspires us to act, and engages us more deeply than they believe us capable. As writers, we need celebrities to be partners in our collective artistic endeavor; they need to treat the interview as an artform as they would their own works, and not just as a platform for promoting those works. And, as editors, we need publishers to recognize that running a publishing company like a technology company is not the path to success but the road to obsolescence.

Interviews in History: Alex Haley

Playboy has published many of the greatest celebrity interviews of all time since September 1962, starting with an interview by Alex Haley with jazz legend Miles Davis. Having set the stage for generations to come, Haley became one of the best interviewers in history.

Alex Haley (right) on the cover of Time magazine (February 4, 1977)

I highly recommend Haley's tense interview with the infamous George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, one year before Rockwell's murder.

Excerpt: George Lincoln Rockwell (April 1966)

HALEY: Before we begin, Commander, I wonder if you'd mind telling me why you're keeping that pistol there at your elbow, and this armed bodyguard between us.

ROCKWELL: Just a precaution. You may not be aware of the fact that I have received literally thousands of threats against my life. Most of them are from cranks, but some of them haven't been; there are bullet holes all over the outside of this building. Just last week, two gallon jugs of flaming gasoline were flung against the house right under my window. I keep this gun within reach and a guard beside me during interviews because I've been attacked too many times to take any chances.

I haven't been jumped by an impostor, but it wasn't long ago that 17 guys claiming to be from the university came here to "interview" me; nothing untoward happened, but we later found out they were armed and planned to tear down the flag, burn the joint and beat me up. Only the fact that we were ready for that kind of rough stuff kept it from happening. We've never yet had to hurt anybody, but only because I think they all know we're ready to fight any time. If you're who you claim to be, you have nothing to fear.

HALEY: I don't.

ROCKWELL: Good. Just so we both know where we stand, I'd like to make something else crystal clear before we begin. I'm going to be honest and direct with you. You're here in your professional capacity. I'm here in my professional capacity. While here, you'll be treated well—but I see you're a black interviewer. It's nothing personal, but I want you to understand that I don't mix with your kind, and we call your race "niggers."

HALEY: I've been called "nigger" many times, Commander, but this is the first time I'm being paid for it. So you go right ahead. What have you got against us "niggers"?

Great interviews have great beginnings. How's that for starting with a bang?

Most interviews today are conducted remotely, usually by phone or e-mail, but this classic in-person interview allowed for setting a great sense of place! You can just imagine Haley, a black man with a tape recorder, surrounded by armed white nationalists and seated fearlessly before Rockwell in an uneasy truce, ready to hit the deck at the first sign of trouble.

In Brief: Alex Haley

While Haley went on to interview other pivotal figures of the 1960s, such as boxing legend Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and late-night king Johnny Carson, Haley began his rise to prominence as a writer and interviewer with the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965, borne out of his 50+ interviews with the activist.

By the time Haley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the Malcolm X autobiography had sold more than 6 million copies. Roots, a novelization of his family's story, became an 8-part television series with more than 130 million viewers. The miniseries won 9 Primetime Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, a Peabody Award, a DGA Award, and remains the third highest-rated US television program. The lead role was played by LeVar Burton, who would later boldly go where no one has gone before in the Star Trek universe!

Unfortunately, despite being an admitted fiction, Roots was immediately plagued with allegations of plagiarism and historical inaccuracies. One related lawsuit was settled and another was dismissed by the court which found that "no actionable similarities exist between the works."

Nevertheless, Haley's interviews are among the best you will read. Here are more excerpts.

Excerpt: Cassius Clay (October 1964)

HALEY: There was another controversy about the honesty of your failure to pass the three Army preinduction qualification tests that you took shortly after the fight. Any comment?

CLAY: The truth don't hurt nobody. The fact is I never was too bright in school. I just barely graduated. I had a D-minus average. I ain't ashamed of it, though. I mean, how much do school principals make a month? But when I looked at a lot of the questions they had on them Army tests, I just didn't know the answers. I didn't even know how to start after finding the answers. That's all. So I didn't pass. It was the Army's decision that they didn't want me to go in the service. They're the boss.

HALEY: Was it embarassing to be declared mentally unfit?

CLAY: I have said I am the greatest. Ain't nobody ever heard me say I was the smartest.

Excerpt: Martin Luther King Jr. (January 1965)

KING: […] I shall never forget the grief and bitterness I felt on that terrible September morning when a bomb blew out the lives of those four little, innocent girls sitting in their Sunday-school class in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I think of how a woman cried out, crunching through broken glass, "My God, we're not even safe in church!"

I think of how that explosion blew the face of Jesus Christ from a stained-glass window. It was symbolic of how sin and evil had blotted out the life of Christ. I can remember thinking that if men were this bestial, was it all worth it? Was there any hope? Was there any way out?

HALEY: Do you still feel this way?

KING: No, time has healed the wounds—and buoyed me with the inspiration of another moment which I shall never forget: when I saw with my own eyes over 3,000 young Negro boys and girls, totally unarmed, leave Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church to march to a prayer meeting—ready to pit nothing but the power of their bodies and souls against Bull Connor's police dogs, clubs and fire hoses. When they refused Connor's bellowed order to turn back, he whirled and shouted to his men to turn on the hoses.

It was one of those fantastic events of the Birmingham story that these Negroes, many of them on their knees, stared, unafraid and unmoving, at Connor's men with the hose nozzles in their hands. Then, slowly the Negroes stood up and advanced, and Connor's men fell back as though hypnotized, as the Negroes marched on past to hold their prayer meeting. I saw there, I felt there, for the first time, the pride and the power of nonviolence.

Excerpt: Johnny Carson (December 1967)

CARSON: […] When you get successful, you just have to quit going out in public as often as you used to. Wherever you go, some clown grabs you and demands an autograph; it's a pain in the butt. I've had a guy in a urinal ask me for an autograph!

HALEY: Don't all entertainers have to put up with that kind of thing?

CARSON: Of course. But it doesn't stop there. Everybody I meet in public seems to want to audition for me. If I ask a guy what time it is, he'll sing it to me. Everywhere I turn, there's somebody's niece who plays the kazoo or does ballet with skindiving flippers.

I'll never forget coming out of a restaurant one night, when this hand reaches from an alley and literally turns me completely around. It was this woman. "I want you to hear my son sing," she says. And out she shoves this kid—"Sing, Albert!" And he did—right there in the street.

I've had cab drivers pull over to the curb to tell me about some relative who ought to be on the show. That's why I've got cabophobia—the fear of being talked to death in an enclosed space.

And, yes, you should read Playboy for the interviews! There is no better source of regularly published longform celebrity interviews, except a few books here and there.

Gamers at Work reveals the risks and emotional complications in entrepreneurship

How Gamers at Work can benefit students

Ramsay: Gamers at Work is first and foremost a business book. The Entrepreneurial Management Center at San Diego State University has a copy in their library. Wagner College, one of the top private business schools in New York, has a copy in their library, too. I think the book would be perfect as a teaching tool for founders, a reference that bridges the gap between professional managers and founders, and a resource for game developers who should understand the how and why of the decisions that might one day affect their employment.

Read the full interview at VentureBeat ›