To Prep...or Not to Prep
Hi Friends,

So sorry about that cheesy Shakespeare reference. I couldn't help myself!

Every time I teach a workshop or talk to a class of college students, I'm always asked at least one of the following questions about interview prep:

How much interview prep should I do? Is there such a thing as too much? What about pre-interviews? Are they a good thing...or a bad thing?
magnifying glass
Magnifying glass photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.
Are you subscribed to Narrative Beat yet?
Subscribe now!
The truth is, my views on interview prep have changed dramatically over the years.

You might already know that I worked on a public radio sports show for more than 20 years. I held every position on the program, from technical director to host.

The thing you might not know is…when I got hired, I knew nothing about sports. Literally nothing. In those early days, we'd be having a story meeting and all I could do was nod and smile. Nod and smile.

(The smiling and nodding wasn't fooling anyone, but it made me feel like less of an imposter.)

For many years, it didn't make any sense to send me to cover football, baseball, basketball, or hockey. I'd be lost.

So instead, I did stories about "wacky" sports -- sports that nobody on the team knew anything about. I flew to Washington, DC to witness a modern jousting tournament. I "interviewed" a dog at the Human Dog Sled Races. I sent my recording kit into a battle at a medieval war. I watched as college students dressed as aliens competed at the Intergalactic Ice Golf Tournament.

For these stories, I found that it was best if I went in without too much information. I'd wander around and follow my curiosity. If I saw something I didn't understand, I'd ask someone to explain it to me -- in real time. When I ran out of questions to ask one person, I'd ask them to introduce me to whoever I should talk to next.

I'd spend a full day on site, gather tons of tape, and return home -- confident that I had everything I could ever need.

And then...we switched to narrative.

Suddenly, "winging it" was no longer an option.

Narrative requires an element of surprise. And if you just hang out and wait for something truly unexpected to happen, it's gonna take a lot longer than a DAY. It might take YEARS.

Need proof?

So, if you haven't listened to 99 Percent Invisible's According to Need, do it now.

Listen. Be amazed. Then, listen to this episode of How Sound.

Okay, I know you're probably not going to rush off to listen to 5 1/2 hours of audio before reading the rest of this newsletter, so I'll give you the TLDR version.

Katie Mingle didn't just hang out at homeless encampments to capture the sound for her series. I mean, yes, that's what she did at the beginning.

But after a year of reporting, Katie put together a draft episode. And, as she explained to Rob Rosenthal, she was disappointed with the results.
How Sound, Tape-Driven Storytelling - 5/11/21

"For me it just wasn't -- it just wasn't hitting. It just wasn't what I wanted. Like, and I didn't even know why. I didn't really understand why it wasn't emotionally grabbing me."
Katie spent another year gathering tape. But this time, she was much more intentional. She sought out surprising stories and unexpected tape...and built her reporting around those elements.

And I know I've said this already, but the result was truly beautiful...and important. And just to be real here -- it's incredibly difficult to accomplish both of those things at the same time.

All of this is to say, if you have two years to spend on your project, by all means...follow your curiosity. See where it leads. Hopefully you will be able to create something that's as beautiful as it is important, like Katie did.

But if you're like me, and you have been told that you're getting exactly one hour with your interview subject and that there will be no follow up -- and yes, this really did happen to me last week -- you need to go in with a plan. Like, a really, really good plan.

So, yeah, I prep. I do ALL the prep.

If I'm interviewing someone who's been in the news, I read every article I can find. I look for the article written by the local paper, not the national outlet. I dig deep, looking for stories that are a year old, ten years old, twenty years old.

I scroll through their Twitter feed and look for that thing they mentioned one time. I read old blog posts. I order a copy of the autobiography they wrote, but no one ever read.

I familiarize myself with the historical context surrounding their story. (Interviewing a veteran who played baseball in between two stints in the Army? It's a good thing to be familiar with the US occupation of Japan and the Korean war.)

And then...I guess.

No, really.

I guess.

So, here's an example.

In 2019, a publicist pitched a story about former Atlanta Dream head coach Nicky Collen and her husband, Tom.

The publicist told me that Nicky had been Tom's assistant coach for many years. But recently, Tom had decided to become a stay-at-home dad so that Nicky could focus on her career. Nicky very quickly went from being an assistant coach in college to being a head coach in the WNBA. And then, in her very first year, she was named the WNBA's Coach of the Year.

I read through the pitch from the publicist and found all of the articles that had been written about Nicky and Tom. And I identified the following story beats.
  • Nicky and Tom start dating while working together at Colorado State.
  • Colorado State forces Tom to fire Nicky.
  • Nicky (assistant) follows Tom (head coach) to his next few jobs.
  • Nicky takes time off to raise kids.
  • Nicky comes back to work for Tom.
  • Tom becomes a stay-at-home dad.
  • Nicky gets hired as a head coach in the WNBA.
  • Nicky wins coach of the year in her first year as a head coach.
Then, I looked at the list and asked myself, "What's missing?" "What else must have happened in order for that sequence of events to unfold?"

And I added those story beats to my list.
  • Nicky and Tom meet.
  • Tom hires Nicky as his assistant coach.
  • Tom and Nicky start dating.
  • Colorado State forces Tom to fire Nicky.
  • Tom and Nicky get married.
  • Nicky (assistant) follows Tom (head coach) to his next few jobs.
  • Nicky takes time off to raise kids.
  • Nicky comes back to work for Tom.
  • Tom leaves his job.
  • Tom becomes a stay-at-home dad.
  • Nicky gets hired as a head coach in the WNBA.
  • Nicky wins coach of the year in her first year as a head coach.
  • Tom watches as Nicki accepts her coach of the year award.
And finally, I turned that list of story beats into story questions, trying to craft them in a way that drills down to very specific moments, instead of just generalities.
  • Nicky and Tom meet. (What was your first impression?)
  • Tom hires Nicky as his assistant coach. (Did she apply? Did Tom recruit her?)
  • Tom and Nicky start dating. (Where did you go on your first date?)
  • Colorado State forces Tom to fire Nicky. (Take me into that conversation. What did she say? What did you say?)
  • Tom and Nicky get married. (Tell me about the proposal.)
  • Nicky (assistant) follows Tom (head coach) to his next few jobs. (Any resentment from other assistant coaches?)
  • Nicky takes time off to raise kids. (Take me into that decision. What prompted it?)
  • Nicky comes back to work for Tom. (What was different this time around?)
  • Tom leaves his job. (Why not just look for another coaching gig?)
  • Tom becomes a stay-at-home dad. (That must have been an adjustment!)
  • Nicky gets hired as a head coach in the WNBA. (How did that happen?)
  • Nicky wins coach of the year in her first year as a head coach. (How did you hear the news? How did you react?)
  • Tom watches as Nicki accepts her coach of the year award. (What were you feeling in that moment?)
Now, just because I identified all of these moments doesn't mean that they'll all make it into my piece. And it also doesn't mean that these are the only things we'll talk about during the interview.

But with this list, I know I'll come out of the interview with the backbone of my story. And often, when you go through the story beats step-by-step like this, your interview subject will intuitively understand what you're looking for and, hopefully, start sharing important anecdotes that you didn't know to ask about.

Nicky and Tom are public figures. I was able to find out quite a lot about them before the interviews. But what if there are no articles you can read? No old blog posts? Not even a Tweet.

I know what you're thinking…

Can't I just do a pre-interview?

Eh…

I don't recommend it.

If you've ever had to go back and re-ask an interview question because of a technical failure or a dog that suddenly started barking, you might have noticed that the second take wasn't nearly as good as the first.

There are exceptions, of course. But most of the time, people are more animated, more thoughtful -- more real -- the first time they tell you their story.

The second time around, their brain starts editing. They leave out the parts they think sounded silly. They sound practiced, rehearsed.

The emotional energy is lost.

To a lesser extent, that's what happens when you do a pre-interview. You're going to spend a lot of time during your interview trying to recapture the magic of the first time they told you their story. And it's just never going to be quite as good.

So what can you do instead?

Well, the best solution is to tell your guest that you'll need to interview them twice. Think of the first recording like you would a pre-interview...but on tape. Then go home, listen to the audio and ask yourself, what story beats are missing? What moments do I need to dig into more deeply to get to the emotional heart of this story? Those will be your questions for interview #2.

Be sure to use the same recording setup for both interviews, so that you can mix and match the tape, using the best moments from each interview.

But...if you're only gonna get one shot at this interview, you need to get creative.

I've sometimes asked a junior producer or an intern to do the pre-interview for me. It sounds like a diva move. But it allows me to get a sense of the shape of the story, without wasting the magic of the first time someone tells their story to me.

Also, you might consider working your way up to your most important interview. So if you're doing a story about Person X, but you also plan to interview that person's colleagues, Y and Z, interview Y and Z first. Then you'll have lots of story beats to ask Person X about.

If you can't do any of those things, ask for more time. If you're usually able to get through your interview questions in 60 minutes, ask for 90. Give yourself time to dig around and explore during the interview.

And yeah, if you absolutely, positively have no other choice, go ahead and do that pre-interview.

But trust me...your subject is going to say at least one thing during that conversation that you will never, ever get them to say again.

It will be heartbreaking.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Karen