Every day around dinner time, as the kids are (hopefully) helping set the table or maybe as we settle down to eat, I ask them a variation on the same question.
“So, what did you do at ___________ today?” (Insert in-person or online school, or these days — mercifully — camp, or maybe a physically distant outdoor meet with a friend.)
“Nothing,” comes the pat reply. On most days I am able to do an inward eye-roll, smile, and persist. (There are days when my sarcasm gets the best of me.)
“Really? What about that toilet-paper-mummy contest you had yesterday? Who won?”
An informed question like that usually opens the floodgates, and then comes a barrage of information. Actually, their team won said contest, but it was a close call. The camp counsellors told the worst types of dad jokes. Victoria was making funny noises during the craft activity. The stories just keep on coming.
As human beings, we often find a need to communicate, whether it’s to pass on information or simply spin a good yarn. But unless you have a high context relationship — familial or collegial — with a person, or you’re Sherlock Holmes, you don’t necessarily know their story or what they can tell you. You have to ask some questions, dig for information. And a good pre-interview can help you do just that.
It’s an amazing resource, whether you’re planning the next episode of your podcast, a daily radio show, or an audio documentary. It gives you a way to know your characters beyond the information they are going to provide before you even hit the record button. It can offer your host — or you if you’re doing the interview — a bit of a roadmap. And it can prepare your guest for the interview; unless you have a natural gift of the gab or otherwise deal with the media regularly, people can feel a little intimidated when a microphone is thrust in front of them.
I discovered the wonders of the pre-interview when I first started doing radio stories. Before, as a print journalist, I often used to discover the story as it unfolded. As in, my editor would assign me a story or I would pitch an idea, and then I would go about looking for people to interview. After conducting the interview, usually in the field because I love stories that can paint a picture for a reader, I would get back to the desk, and start crafting the story. I had the luxury to edit the details I wanted, paraphrase long passages of quotes, and construct a narrative arc.
When it came to radio, however, things were different. Of course, in some cases, the process was the same. For news stories, reporters went to the scene and spoke to people there. Or there were streeters, where you went out with a microphone in hand, stood on a street, and hoped and prayed that a passerby would agree to speak with you. But in the case of booking a guest for a show, you would conduct pre-interviews.
This would entail calling up a guest on the phone, explaining why you’re calling them, and asking if they would spend 10–15 minutes in conversation with you so you can understand a story from their perspective. More often than not, people are agreeable to that request. They like the idea of someone taking the time to find out what their thoughts are. And if the conversation goes well, they are willing to spare even more time, especially if you explain that you want to get the facts or details right.
This helps in many ways, and all of these practices are essential in making a strong podcast episode. First of all, you very quickly understand whether the person is, in fact, a good guest, or — as they are often called in the industry parlance — a talker. If the person is not the most scintillating conversationalist, this time also gives you a chance to prepare your guest for the actual interview; you can suggest which story or anecdotes worked well, and would be worthwhile to repeat during the recording session. If a person is not the best interview but is the only person who can do the interview — a particular expert, say, or someone who played a pivotal part in a story — you can alert your host before the interview; maybe even think of ways you can use that situation as part of the storytelling.
You also get to understand the contours of the story. As you’re planning out your podcast episode, you can figure out the narrative arc of the episode and plot it accordingly. Maybe you need a secondary voice to help explain a point made by your feature guest. Maybe your guest suggests some musical cues during the pre-interview, which might be helpful in scoring the episode. Perhaps you get a sense of your guest's personal routine, which may weave into the scripting for the episode. You might learn that your guest is a morning person; and prefers to talk to you while sipping a cup of coffee, while staring out the window. Or maybe they are night owls who like to curl up on a particular corner on their sofa. Maybe it’s someone who cannot leave a crossword puzzle unsolved. Knowing these details might not be pertinent to your story, but it helps to build an idea of the person in a listener’s mind. And it creates a rapport between you and the guest, which can then translate into the actual taping session.
Then, of course, there’s the whole business of demystifying the process for your guest. While most people are generous with their time, they can also clam up when it comes to an actual interview. By doing a pre-interview, you can assuage them of any concerns they may have in being interviewed. When people understand what purpose they are serving, they are usually willing to help you fulfill it. I’m constantly amazed by how patient people are with my questions — and I often deliberately ask some dumb ones, just to make sure that I can confirm details. Of course, you do need to ask your questions with genuine interest and a willingness to listen to what they have to say.
Sometimes, if you are in the habit of recording your pre-interviews, they can become a part of your show. (Remember that you need to get permission to use this tape, so let your guest know that you’re recording.) Take, for example, an episode of The Experiment podcast by The Atlantic, called “The Crime of Refusing Vaccination.”
In the opening scene, producer Gabrielle Berbey calls a number that was likely listed for the Swedish Lutheran Church in Cambridge but is now the Faith Lutheran Church. You hear Gabrielle ask the man who answers the phone whether it’s the church she’s looking for. In response, he clarifies that the church no longer uses that name and that he’s the pastor.
When Gabrielle continues explaining that she’s looking to find out more about a former pastor named Henning Jacobson, the man immediately replies, “Yup, I’m sure this is about vaccinations?” That is audio gold. You cannot plan for a moment like this—where you set up the premise of your story as a bit of a mystery. (The distorted organ playing in the background also adds to the effect, judiciously, as you come to learn later in the episode.)
In fact, I am so used to doing pre-interviews now that I will often use them even for my print pieces. Before I even pitch a story, I will try and call at least one of the people whom I think can be a lead character. I don’t need to ascertain whether they are a talker or not; it’s my job as a journalist-storyteller to get them to open up. Nevertheless, it helps me think through the story a little bit more, even before I start tapping out an email on my keyboard.
- Since we now have the power of internet searches, I look up the person — especially if they are an expert. If you know a few details about the person you are about to call, it helps open the conversation. Maybe they have written a book, a blog post, or a tweet related to the topic you want to talk to them about. Given that the first point of contact these days is often an email or some form of DM, you can also use that first missive to convey your interest and seek permission to talk.
- When I call the person, I identify myself and the purpose of my call. I also ask them about their day. Some genuine interest in the other person’s mental state at your time of call means a lot. If your guest is willing to share some details, it can help build rapport — and perhaps inform your script.
- Be mindful of the time. If your guest only has 15 minutes to spare for a pre-interview, try to move to the purpose of your call in the most graceful way you can manage.
- If the person says they can keep talking beyond your appointed time, it’s up to you to figure out if you have enough information. When to end a pre-interview can be entirely subjective. Sometimes you feel like you want to know every part of the story so that there are no surprises when you do the formal interview. Other times, you quickly get a sense that a person is a good talker, and needs the smallest of cues to launch into a story.
- Have a list of your must-ask questions, and make sure you get to ask them, especially if you have limited time. If you’re on an information-digging session, remember to listen carefully to your guest.
- Makes notes! Whether you record your pre-interviews or jot down notes (my personal preference), make sure to have some record of your conversation.
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