There is one skill that separates the wannabes from the well-paid freelance writers.
That talent is interviewing — particularly, the ability to get memorable quotes from high-profile people. Leading experts, actors, rock stars, CEOs of $1 billion companies, presidents, big-time gurus, and the people who know them. Those types of folks.
This is a skill I learned early, and it’s helped me earn well as a freelance writer. Here are my three big tips for how to interview experts:
1) Realize that celebrities are just people
The first step to feeling comfortable interviewing prominent people is to realize that they are human, just like you. Yes, their circumstances are different, but you can always find some common denominator, some icebreaker, that will put you on an even footing.
For instance, this summer, Forbes flew me to North Dakota to interview the state’s richest man, a hotel magnate worth over $1 billion. It was a $2,800 assignment.
When I arrived in Fargo, I quickly discovered that we are both older parents with school-age kids. He schedules his work hours so he’s home for after-school hours, just like me. Also, before he bought that first motel, he was an insurance salesman — and so was my dad.
Take any two humans, and they’ve got something in common. Find it, and the whole climate relaxes, and you can get your source to tell you whatever you need to know.
2) Practice talking to bigwigs
The way I came to realization #1 is that I spent a lot of time talking to celebrities. I highly recommend this as a way to stop being intimidated by powerful people.
You see, when I was in my very early twenties, I was a legal secretary at the William Morris Agency and at MGM/UA.
This meant Buddy Hackett would be in the food-truck line with me, shooting the breeze, dressed in overalls. I’d be in an Oscar betting pool with super-agent Stan Kamen. Or Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner would be in an agent meeting, and I’d come in and take notes. TV producer Fred Silverman would come in to pitch an idea. I’d be chatting up Brian DiPalma while he waited for my boss, a director’s agent, to finish up a phone call.
I once spent a day at Barbra Streisand’s Malibu complex, typing up show scripts for an upcoming concert she was putting on. While I was there, a pair of my idols, songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman, stopped by. (I knew I’d be talking to Barbra, but I’ll admit the Bergmans had me tongue-tied!)
My husband worked in TV, too, and we once went to a party at Jack Haley Jr.’s house in the Hollywood hills. And to a Night of 100 Stars-type gala. I wore a black satin evening dress I got at a thrift store, and spent the night on a dance floor with Liza Minnelli, Jaclyn Smith, Jimmy Stewart, and dozens of other stars.
Do enough of this, and you simply become acclimatized. You’re not standing around with your mouth hanging open, or pointing, or shouting, “Look, it’s so-and-so!” when you see a celebrity. You stop acting like an idiot around them. You become able to make small talk and look them in the eye.
Then, you can prepare a list of questions and interview them, and it’ll go just fine.
3) Prepare to follow up
One big fear in talking to celebrities is that you’ll make some kind of mistake, or you’ll forget to ask something important. If that’s your worry, fuggedaboutit.
Celebrities have heard it all. Your screwup won’t even be a blip on their radar. They’ve also done a lot of interviews — so they know it’s routine for you to circle back and ask more questions.
For my Forbes piece, I was asked to do five different drafts, which were edited by three different people. Each draft required new facts! I was on email and the phone with the billionaire for days on end.
This. Is. Normal. My subject never once complained — he even called me back once from the Mall of America, where his family was out shopping. Celebrities know the drill.
Learn to relax while interviewing
I thought all my elbow-rubbing with the stars had nothing to do with my subsequent life as a journalist. Until I got a staff job covering business, and was asked to interview Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, Blake Nordstrom, and Costco’s Jeff Brotman.
I knew other reporters quaked in their boots at the idea of doing these heavy-hitter CEO interviews. But I didn’t. I had been celebrity-proofed by my showbiz experience.
So: Ask a CEO when his company will stop losing money, or why they sell goods from sweatshops, or how much of their net worth they lost in the ’08 downturn? No problem.
Also, once you’ve interviewed movie stars or politicians, it’ll be nothing to you to ask an expert in animal husbandry or rocket science or infectious diseases for a quick quote for an article.
Expert interviews are infinitely easier to cope with, because there are always other experts you could get, if your first one doesn’t pan out. Where if your editor wants Channing Tatum and you can’t get him, you’re screwed.
Ways to rub shoulders
You may be thinking — but how could I ever get a chance to talk to a lot of expert types? There are plenty of opportunities:
- Consider working on a political campaign for an incumbent candidate.
- Go to book signings with prominent authors.
- Go to conventions such as Comic-Con, where you can talk to movie stars, game creators, and other notables.
- Attend movie or play premieres where the actors will be doing a Q&A afterwards.
- Intern with a PR firm that handles celebrities.
When you find yourself hanging out with a prominent person, strike up a conversation. Or ask one question, even.
Yes, the top celebrities will be hard to get on the phone. But you’ll be surprised how many celebrities will agree to be interviewed by you. Even billionaires who own 26 hotels. I can vouch.
Big tip: Develop a story angle that appeals to them. Say you’ll write about their efforts for their favorite charity, or their new perfume. Do your research and find out what interests and excites them right now, and you’ll open doors.
Develop a knack for getting — and nailing — the celebrity interview, and you’ll open the doors to some great-paying freelance writing assignments.
Ever interviewed a celebrity? Share how you got the gig in the comments.