Insider Tricks to Landing Interviews with Industry Rock Stars

on May 21, 2013

For more than 18 years I’ve worked as a traditional journalist in over 40 media outlets plus a brand journalist for dozens of tech companies. During that time I’ve interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Many of them industry nobodies plus lots of industry big wigs. Sometimes I’ve been really successful landing killer interviews with industry rock stars, and admittedly sometimes I blow it. Landing Interviews with Industry Rock StarsWhen I work as a journalist for a well respected media outlet, I can often lean on those names to lend the credibility necessary to land those key interviews. When you don’t have a huge media brand to stand behind, landing killer interviews requires a lot more hustle. And that’s what I usually have to do. What follows are a series of experiential tips to getting that “in the moment” interview. Landing the more formal sit down long form interview will have to wait for another article.

Here’s what I’ve learned from years of hustling for interviews.

It’s worth the effort

Land a great interviewYou can’t land a great interview if you begin your interview effort thinking, “Geez, why would that well known person want to talk to me? I’m a complete nobody. They’ve been on national news and I’ve got a stupid little blog/podcast.” Here’s a great principle of interviewing: Most people like talking about themselves and what they know. If you just remember that, and approach it in a “I want to know what you think” kind of way, you will be very successful getting the best people in your industry to agree to an interview. And when you get that interview, with your name and brand associated with this well-known person, it’ll all be worth the effort. Your personal and media brand will rise as a result.

Be where they are

Reporter techniquesThe best way to get a key interview is to simply show up with recorder (audio or video) in hand and be where the subject will be. This doesn’t mean stalk them outside their house. If you know they’re going to be speaking at a conference, go to that conference, and approach them for an interview there. This works for short form interviews, not longer form interviews. In those cases you’ll have to set up something formally and that may require going through the media relations department which can either be a helpful or difficult process.

Don’t let anyone else get involved in your interview request

Interview like a reporterWhen I know I want an interview with someone I have no need for a PR professional to be an intermediary. When I don’t know who to interview they’re a fantastic resource. But if I know who I need, in almost all cases they only slow down the process or kill my chances, and in some cases it can be humiliating. If you’re trying to start a blog that has no industry presence you’ll be hounded with questions such as “What’s the traffic to your site,” “What will this interview be used for,” “Can we see the questions first,” and “Can we approve the quotes?” All of that is to benefit the company’s public relations department and it slows down your effort tremendously. I understand they’re trying to maximize the value of their client’s time, but you’re also trying to get your interview for your media property which may not fit in with the PR company’s effort. You and the PR person may end up with diametrically opposing needs, and the net result is you lose and don’t get the interview. That’s why it’s best to avoid the PR department if you already know who you want to interview.

Occasionally, the avoiding the PR department technique won’t work if the media relations has trained their people to always send interview requests through them.

Always be ready to interview

Shai Agassi interviewMany great interviews will be the result of pure chance. It’ll be a moment you won’t be prepared for, yet you’ll have a great opportunity to get a killer interview. Chances are you won’t have your traditional equipment with you. In those cases, you’ll want to use your mobile phone to record the interview. Practice being able to start your audio/video recorder on your mobile phone very quickly.

Be professional and extremely clear as to what you want

InterviewingTips_12If they’re an industry heavyweight and you truly only have a minute or two to interview them, then know what you want to interview them about, and make sure you communicate that to your subject. If you show that you’ve done some research and want to ask a very specific question, they’ll respect you. Acting professional, and being clear as to what you want to discuss, will go a long way to landing that interview. If you don’t have your act together, they’re not going to be too confident in your final product and they’ll reject the interview.

If you truly have zero time to do research because you just ran into the person, then ask them one of the five generic interview questions I always ask that consistently yield great answers.

Be at the right place at the right time

InterviewingTips_05This is more than just “be where they are.” This is truly being at the right place at the right moment. Often you will literally have seconds to nab someone for an interview. If they speak at a conference, they may run out of  the room the moment they’re finished. You need to intercept them once they walk out the room and ask them for that interview. If no one is as quick as you, you’ll actually have them as a captive audience for a few minutes to get that interview.

Seriously, be ready to interview RIGHT NOW

InterviewingTips_09A good and bad interview can be won and lost simply with your ability to hit the record button right this very second. If you have to say to the interviewee, hold on while I get my equipment ready, you’ve lost. I’ve landed so many interviews simply because the time between “Can I interview you?” and my ability to hit “Record” and start interviewing is separated by just a few seconds. It shows incredible professionalism and the interviewee will highly respect you, thus making your interview that much better. For example, when we were conducting interviews with IndyCar drivers this was especially critical. You often only get 30-45 seconds with the drivers and that means one or two questions at most. You better be ready to record instantly.

Go where you’re not supposed to go

InterviewingTips_06This is the process of weaseling your way backstage or walking into a speakers’ room where you’re not supposed to be. This technique is not for everyone, and I’ve definitely had my hand slapped for pulling this move at multiple events. But it’s worked far more often than not so I keep doing it. The goal is to get in there, request the interview, and then get out. It’s often a great time to conduct an interview because the speakers are just sitting there waiting to go on stage and they’ve been put into a “hurry up and wait” situation. They’re bored and they’d love an opportunity to just talk about the subject they’re most passionate about. This can have the reverse effect as some people are getting into the “zone” before they present and they don’t want to talk to anybody. If before is not a good time, you can also catch them as they come off stage when they’re on that post-presenting “high.”

Snipe interview subjects

InterviewingTips_10If you can’t get backstage or into the speakers waiting area, hang outside the space and literally snipe your subjects as they walk out the door. But don’t make it look like that’s what you’re doing. The trick is to make it look like you happen to walk by, and whaddya know, they just happen to be the person you want to interview.

Name drop

InterviewingTips_01Most people are very friendly and open for an interview, but in some cases you’ll get that “Who the heck are you?” kind of attitude. Names always open doors and ease your ability to land that interview. Drop a name they know, suggested Harry McCracken (@harrymccracken), Editor-at-Large for TIME. If you happen to interview someone else at their company, mention that name. Maybe you interviewed someone else famous and you’d like them to participate as well. Bring that name up and they’ll be eager to do the interview because they’ll want to be seen as associated with that other person. You can also do a quick search through LinkedIn or Facebook and see if you have any friends in common.

Make the interview an attractive opportunity for them

InterviewingTips_11“It helps if the opportunity is intriguing to the person in question for one reason or another,” said McCracken.

You could be writing an offbeat article for which participation would be really fun. Or you could be writing about the person’s company or another well-known person for which an association would be valuable to the interviewee. Or you could be putting that person in an article with many other famous people, and that association will be an obvious benefit to the interviewee.

Some interviews are out of reach

Accept the fact that sometimes you won’t always get that interview you want. Don’t make that decision until after you actually try. And sometimes you can keep trying to get the interview after you’ve been rejected. Your success will come with lots of effort and others seeing the fruit of all those effort as well. As you start landing those key interviews, subsequent interviews will get easier and easier. For more tips on how to interview like a reporter, read “30 Tips on How to Interview Like a Journalist.”


Creative Commons photo attribution to St0rmz, Lee Jordan, christopherharte (2), North Charleston, and marjoleincc.

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