Interview disasters vol. 2: Journalist war stories from the frontline

Three years ago, we asked a selection of Progressive Content’s seasoned journalists to recall the interviews that still give them nightmares. Here’s a fresh batch of interview horrors that have left these writers waking up in a cold sweat

The national hero

I was granted an interview with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man to sail around the world and a chap with a reputation for not suffering fools gladly. It was my first job as a freelance journalist and I was determined to get some kind of exclusive.

I decided to use a Dictaphone so that I could focus on asking pertinent questions – in fact I didn’t use a notebook at all, thinking that conversation would flow more easily without me scribbling away. I had spare batteries, a spare tape – nothing could go wrong. It was only when I got home to transcribe the tape that I realised the pause button had been pressed and I hadn’t recorded one word of our hour-long conversation. No quotes, no story, no money. I learned that double-checking is not enough – triple checking is a minimum when working with any sort of tech.

Miles Kendall

The famous entrepreneur

I was probably still a bit wet behind the ears when the opportunity arose for our business title to interview a famous woman entrepreneur, who started out in fashion but later diversified into many different creative things. It was a long-distance telephone call that lasted, I think, two hours.

With my eye on the clock, and wondering what our accounts team would think of the phone bill, she told me her life story: the loves, the bands, the clothes. All fascinating to me, but not of much interest to our readership. I made a feature out of it, there were a few business snippets, and she looked great on the cover, but I learnt then that a gentle intervention with some concise questions would have made it a better feature for both of us. And our publication’s bottom line!

Amy Duff

The enthusiastic business owner

I learned the hard way how to wrap up an interview. Having invited a small business owner to be interviewed about starting up and growing her business, she came along to the office for the meeting. I positioned myself catastrophically and she was sat right by the door. She was also, it turned out, very passionate and very enthusiastic about her business. I could not stop her talking. The interview was for a front section item, which would end up being no longer than 400 words, but after an hour I emerged exhausted with enough material to write a two-part profile of her.

The experience taught me a lot: always explain to the interviewee what is required of them and set their expectations at an appropriate level. Put yourself in the driving seat from the start, don’t let the subject steer you. Finally, don’t be afraid to stop them or interrupt. They might be excited to talk about themselves, but that doesn’t mean the reader is interested in everything they have to say – your loyalty, after all, has to be to the reader.

Tina Nielsen

The rock star

Technical issues aside (corrupted files and white noise, anyone?), the most disastrous interview was probably my first one. I was interviewing the singer from the band James at a festival when I was about 17. We’re in the catering tent as he wolfs down his starter, lunch and pudding. I’m awed and woefully unprepared, clutching a notepad and chewed biro. And it’s the lack of preparation that killed me. ‘How does it feel to have your first solo album out?’ ‘It’s not my first’. ‘Does the new shaved-head look signal a new beginning?’ ‘I shaved it years ago’. That sort of thing. He was lovely though. Then I helped myself to the free Budweiser cans in the press area. I haven’t touched that beer since…

James Sullivan 

The fencing champion

It’s fair to say sport’s not been my area of expertise per se. I was once asked to interview a reigning fencing champion for a leading lifestyle mag. The thrust of the piece would be how this noble sport could be the next great hipster-y alternative to cardio pump. When I got to the arena, my interviewee met me in full whites, mask and foil. He told me that to get a proper feel for the art of fencing I would need to change into a similar outfit and go through some of the moves. It turned out he was serious. Long story short, I found myself conducting the interview on a podium in front of his squad. Foil in one hand, Dictaphone in the other while repeatedly lunging sideways in full fencing outfit – breeches, jacket, gloves, beekeeper mask etc. The photographer told me later he nearly wet himself.

Simone Noakes

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