How Not to Conduct an Interview

I never give interviews. My publisher, John Wiley, doesn’t like it, but they know that my books will sell well without the promotional events, so they tolerate my taciturnity.

For some crazy reason, I made an exception to my rule recently. I got an e-mail from an ETR reader. She said she worked for some trade journal. She’d heard that I had a new book coming out about success and leadership – Power & Persuasion – and had some questions for me.

She reminded me of myself 25 years ago – brand-new to the business of publishing, hoping to get some good interviews, eager for success. So I told G, my superstar assistant, to book a half-hour.

The day came and I took the call. The first thing she said was, “I am going to record this conversation. Is that okay?”

“I guess so,” I said.

I could hear the tape recorder click on. I have to admit, it made me nervous. “Better watch your vocabulary,” I said to myself. “And no double entendres.”

“Would you please state your name and spell it out for the record,” she said.

“W-what?” I stammered.

She repeated herself.

“Do you work for some government agency?” I asked.

If she saw any humor in my remark, she didn’t indicate it. “I am a reporter for XYZ trade journal,” she said. “I want to make sure that your name is spelled correctly in the article.”

“Do you have my book?” I asked.


“Then how did you find out about me?”

“I’m a reader of ETR,” she said.

“Well,” I replied, “if you are an ETR reader, you know that my name is spelled out at the bottom of every issue. You can use the spelling you see there.”

There was a long pause. Then she said, “Can you tell me the names of the businesses you own?”

For the third time in two minutes, I was taken aback.

“The businesses I own? Why are you interested in that? I presumed you wanted to speak to me because I’m an author.”

“I can see this was a mistake,” she muttered. And hung up the phone.

Was she some secret agent, trying to get me to say something foolish “for the record”? Or was she some young journalist, overly impressed with her status as a junior editor of some magazine nobody ever heard of? I couldn’t tell.

But when I repeated the story to K that night, it occurred to me that if she were just an arrogant fledgling journalist, she was on a path toward certain failure.

Interviews are great ways to make friends and influence people. When I was her age, working for Africa Business & Trade in Washington, D.C., I regularly interviewed Fortune 500 International CEOs, top government officials, and ambassadors. I got to know a lot of interesting people.

One of those contacts got me invited to a private birthday party for Jimmy Carter. (Against K’s wishes, I brought along Number One Son, two years old at the time. JC pinched his cheek. We have the photo.) Another one of those contacts got me two job offers with major newspapers. And another contact got me a substantial raise in salary.

These were all “glicken” – unexpected side benefits beyond the expected benefit of building an impressive journalistic resume.

Because of my own experience, I’ve advised proteges to hone their interviewing skills. There is no better way to get close to very important people than to spend some time asking them questions about why they are so great.

My young friend from the trade journal will not be able to do that, because she has no idea how to conduct an interview. And that’s too bad, because the tricks and techniques that experienced interviewers use can help you in all sorts of business situations. Learning how to get someone important/powerful to open up to you is like discovering the combination to a vault that manufactures its own money.

Here are some of the best interviewing tips, techniques, and strategies I’ve learned over the years:

1. Before you meet, find out something personal about your interviewee and use that to break the ice. For example, you might discover that he loves golf and once played at the Old Course in Scotland. You might begin your interview by asking him about that.

2. Occasionally, a small gift works well to break the ice. With the aforementioned interviewee, for example, you could come to the interview with a vintage golf magazine for him.

3. Don’t tape record the interview. It makes people defensive. Take notes. If you need to verify something that was said, do it later by e-mail.

4. Make the first several questions simple and positive. The point is to get the person to loosen up and feel comfortable with you.

5. It’s very important to show that you have prepared for the interview. Know what your subject has done and what businesses he owns. Read anything and everything he’s published. The better you know him (and admire him), the more candid he’ll be with you – both during the interview and afterward.

6. Let your interviewee know the purpose of your interview – and make sure most of your questions are on topic. If you are interested in how he built his real estate empire, tell him so. If your interest is in discovering the technical secrets of real estate investing, say that in the beginning. Then he’ll be mentally geared up to give you the answers you are seeking.

7. Always be gracious, self-effacing, and polite.

8. If, for any reason, the interview starts to go bad (as it did with the trade journalist), apologize and ask if it would be possible to reschedule it.

9. Within 24 hours of the interview, write a brief note thanking the interviewee for his time.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]