Hack’s hacks for real life interviews

In 1998 I did my first interview for a women’s weekly – I nervously flew up to Scotland to interview a dominatrix who was upset because other mums were blanking her at the school gate. She was lovely – she made me a cheese sandwich and gave me a blue crystal “which aids communication” before explaining how she divided her time between school runs and dribbling hot wax on men’s chests. As first interviews go it could have been far, far worse.

image of a blue crystal

The actual crystal – not sure if it has aided communication but I’m quite attached to it.

Since then I’ve done too many real life interviews to count – I’ve spoken to Elvis impersonators, shagging DJs, lifesaving surgeons, campaigning mums and survivors of domestic abuse. And before each one I’m still nervous. Because until you pick up the phone you have no idea what sort of person you’ll be speaking to. However experienced an interviewer you are, each individual is unknown territory.

And then it’s up to me – the interviewer – to tread the path between what the editor wants, what the interviewee thinks their story is and the truth of the story itself. Get it right and everyone will be happy. Getting it wrong is unthinkable.

Over the years I’ve come up with a few rules to cling to as I head into this wild, wild west situation, so here’s a rough guide from a true life hack…

Get chatting

What makes a story come to life is the characters in it – how did they spend Saturday nights? What’s their favourite takeaway? What makes them laugh? Those are the details which, if cleverly woven in, make a person seem more real, gets the reader rooting for them. So before you jump into the narrative – the when, where how of what happened, take some time to ask about the people involved and what they are like.

Carry the details through

As you gather these details, squirrel them away in your mind and bring them up again later. One young woman I interviewed used to love watching The 100 with her father. Later, when she was struggling to talk about how it felt after he passed away I had some tangible questions to ask her. What was it like watching the show without him? How did it feel to hear his favourite song, watch his football team win? These sound like cruel questions but people respond well to them – it’s difficult to express grief but this gives them a framework for doing it and prompts new stories to come into their minds. That kind of detail also makes it feel more real for the readers without having to resort to cliches.

Avoid talking about yourself

Except in the rarest of cases, this kills the conversation stone dead – especially with celebrities. It’s fine to say something like “oh yes, I’ve got two kids as well, they can be a right handful, can’t they?” But once you start regaling them with tales of Little Johnny’s behavioural issues it changes the dynamic of the chat and leaves the interviewee floundering.

Sweat the small stuff

When people are describing something you can both get swept away on the narrative, then when you go to write it up you realise you’re missing a vital detail. “Then he threw a knife at me,” she says. You’re so shocked and sympathetic that you forget to ask where he got the knife from, whether it was a big scary carving knife or a butter knife, where it landed. Sometimes you have to break the flow to ask this crappy, horrible, unpleasant stuff. If you can’t break the flow, write a note to yourself to ask about it later in the conversation. No, it’s not nice but if you’re going to write a true reflection of what happened you have to know where things are.

Dates, dates dates.

The same goes for when things happen. Before you write a feature create a timeline of events and fill it in as you go – then refer back to it when you’re writing.

Check spellings

I shouldn’t even have to mention this, but I will. There are about eight different ways to spell Tracy.

journalist notepad scrawled with notes

If this was a proper blog, this would be a beautiful handmade notepad with a unicorn pen.

Check your voice recorder. Then check it again.

Once my voice recorder ran out of battery half way through an interview with Julie Walters. It was one of the most mortifying moments of my life – to the extent that I’m ashamed to even admit it here, years later. Sure, I have shorthand but I find my notes don’t capture the nuance of the conversation as well, and it’s a bitch to decipher. The PR had to record the rest of the chat on her iPhone and email it over to me – I was so embarrassed I never told anyone in the office what happened. Since then before every interview I’ve checked the battery life and available memory on my trusty Olympus.

Get some playback software

Words cannot express how much I hate transcribing, speech-to-text software is hilariously bad and most commissions don’t pay well enough to pay a transcriber. So recently I downloaded some playback software to my computer. It’s not perfect but it allows you to slow down, speed up and play back small sections over and over until you’ve figured out what that vital mumbled word actually was.

Respect your interviewee

This person might have done things you would never consider doing in a million years. He or she might live a life you disapprove of or disagree with or just don’t get. None of that matters. It’s up to you to get into their heads and understand why they got that tattoo of Donald Trump on their face. In my day-to-day life almost everyone I meet in real life looks like me, thinks like me and often agrees with me so it’s good to see things from a different point of view and get the chance to meet some amazing people I’d never otherwise talk to. And I get paid for it too! Result.

This nice girl would like the corner office please

I was brought up to be nice. I know, what were my parents thinking? Didn’t they know that nice people finish last, that good girls go to heaven but bad girls go to London and that if you wanted to succeed in life you have to kick ass? Didn’t they know that nice would become a byword for ‘boring,’ ‘pedestrian’ and ‘afraid to take risks?’

No, they didn’t. They weren’t thinking about my future career success, net income and social media profile. They just wanted to raise kids who were decent human beings and knew how to behave in public.

We share too much and apologise too often

Now of course we know that niceness is an insidious poison that destroys careers – especially if you are a woman. Niceness is what makes you share your ideas with people who promptly steal them. It’s what makes you offer a leg-up to a new intern who then guns for your job. It’s what makes you punctuate every email with the words ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ and ‘I hope’ – the literary equivalent of the physical cringe – making yourself as small and non-threatening as possible.

Former Google exec and entrepreneur Ellen Petry Leanse first noticed the problem with ‘just’ and posted about it on LinkedIn earlier this year causing a chorus of agreement from women in tough professions everywhere.

Yes, many of us are guilty of niceness. We put ourselves forward to help more than our male colleagues. We try to solve problems that aren’t our own, we share too much and apologise too often. According to Lois Frankel’s Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office we’re our own worst enemies, especially when niceness slides all to easily into self-deprecating. Sorry to disturb… It’s only little me… I hope you don’t mind me asking but…

it's nice to be nice printed on a doormat

Nice message. Shame it’s printed on a doormat. #Symbolism

I can see it in my own career, in every email I send. Even writing this blog I try to look at things from every perspective and in an effort to stay fair I end up equivocating and sometimes not even publishing for fear of upsetting somebody.

So niceness has truly hampered my career. Without it I’d have shoved myself into the limelight; written a few in-your-face columns and acerbic tweets about how I hate x, y and z; made people laugh, pissed people off and got a tasty book deal out of it.

Hell, I could be Caitlin Moran by now*. Well, if I honed my writing a bit and said FUCK more.

Nice has definitely held me back.

Fuck nice. No, FUCK nice.


It’s the subtitle of Frankel’s book that bothers me: Unconscious mistakes women make that sabotages their careers. Oh that’s right – silly little women making mistakes again. That huge, colossal howler of being ourselves and expecting everyone to respect that.

Silly little women making mistakes again. That huge, colossal howler of being ourselves

The assumption is that men are more successful because they’re less nice, rather than because the system is set up for them and women somehow have to operate within it. We’re the ones who have to police our emails, our actions and thoughts. To become someone different in order to reach our goals.

But niceness has helped my career too, in countless ways. No intern has ever tried to steal my job (this is reality, not a Hollywood script) but I’ve pointed plenty of talented ones in the direction of job vacancies and put in a good word. The result? Happy ex-interns who got their first job in journalism through me. This gave me a warm fuzzy feeling – and then a few years later some warm fuzzy commissions.

I’ve generally tried to be a pleasant, approachable boss – even when there are difficult decisions to be made and sheer corporate insanity to be justified. Which means I now have a bunch of ex employees/friends who think of me as a decent human being and who are now editors. In fact one of the nicest women I know just took up a job as editor of one of a hugely successful magazine. Not that she’s a softie – I’m sure she’ll kick ass, but it’ll be the right asses at the right time.

And as for my job itself: a huge part of it is about getting to people to talk. Unless you’re grilling a politician, the interviewer’s role is to fade into the background, to enable people to express themselves, teasing details out of them that even they didn’t know until they started talking. And the first challenge is to get them to feel comfortable and in control.

That’s when ‘just’ becomes powerful. Just one more question… Just asking… Sorry, I know this is hard for you but could you tell me…

If any men out there would like a course in how to be self deprecating and get what you want, I’m happy to teach you. It’s only £3,000 for the day, including biscuits and coffee.

It’s not just journalism either. Across the country millions of women are succeeding in their careers by exercising empathy, caring about what they do and not being afraid to show it. Some of them are undervalued and underpaid but there are those who really do get the corner office. And when the email goes round announcing their promotion everyone sighs with relief that the job didn’t go to an over-assertive wanker.

The trick is to draw the line between nice and pushover. To treat people as human beings who need positive motivation one day and a kick up the bum the next. To know what you want and communicate it honestly but politely. The trick is not to change who you are for some stupid job title – ‘just’ be yourself.

Nice crop 2

* I am not alleging that Caitlin Moran isn’t nice – from what I hear, she is. But she’s not afraid to trample on a few toes to get her point across. **

** See? I can’t even make a throwaway comment about an uber successful journalist who will likely neither read this blog nor care without adding a placatory footnote. Pathetic. Or Nice. You decide.