If you’ve never sat in front of an interviewee feeling embarrassed because you did something completely stupid, well, you probably will at some point. Multiple times, even. I’ve had my fair share, but better early in my career instead of later, I remind myself. It’s because of these awkward mistakes or misunderstandings that I now try to avoid every possible blooper that may come with interviewing. Here are three scenarios:
1. The coffee shop interview
Last week, I set up an interview at a coffee shop. At the end of our conversation, my interviewee added, “By the way, I’m wearing a gray T-shirt and blue shorts…since I don’t know what you look like.” I knew right away that she had saved us a lot of awkwardness, because usually, my coffee shop interviews go something like this: I arrive a bit early and sit at a table with my notebook flat on the wood, and then I patiently wait for the interviewee to show. But actually he is sitting at the table behind me or across from me–or just right next to me–and neither of us are aware. It’s only a matter of minutes before I realize, I have no idea what this person looks like… So we begin to look around for each other–sitting there alone and uncomfortably without any Starbucks–until finally, in a lightbulb moment, we make eye contact and think, Wow, we’re idiots.
You’d think I would learn after the first or second time this happened. No. Maybe after seven times. So save yourself that idiot moment and just take a second to ask what he or she is wearing. Even that’s slightly awkward, but much less than sitting at a table alone waiting for a person to show up who is already there.
2. The Skype interview
For a DrakeMag Q&A story with the band I Fight Dragons I worked on last year, I scheduled a Skype interview with the band members. I had locked my door to avoid any interview interruptions, but halfway through, my roommate came to the door and wrestled with the handle. “Sorry, guys, I need to let my roommate in. Give me just a second,” I told the band. By the time I came to the door, my roommate had already entered another room, and hearing her explain to our neighbors that she was locked out, I decided to go get her. “Sorry, you can come in,” I said to her. “I locked it because I’m doing an interview right now.” Oh, good thing I forgot my key, I thought five seconds later.
Long story short, I left the guys confused and staring through the screen at my walls for more than five minutes before an RA came to the rescue with a key. Embarrassed, I explained to the band through a nervous laugh that I had locked myself out of my room. They laughed along and cracked jokes, but probably were thinking, Wow, what an idiot.
Never again will I leave my Skype interviewees unattended–not even for “a second.”
3. The phone interview
Blooper may not be the right word for this, because it’s something that will happen every time over the phone. It’s that silence between the lines that persists after the interviewee finishes talking, but you’re not finished writing. She can’t see that you’re writing, though, so she’s thinking, Is she still there? You’ll get the occasional “Uh, hello?” “Yes, sorry, I’m here–just writing,” you’ll say. The silence is never avoidable–unless you are the speediest note-taker on the planet–but the confusion on their end is. The first thing I do before every phone interview now, is apologize in advance for the awkward silence and explain that it’s only me writing. It’s the least a journalist can do.