The Art Of The Pre-Interview

Pre-interviews can feel awkward. Hello human being person, I would like to bypass all the normal societal niceties and find out if you have the information I require. Can you please tell me all your deepest, darkest secrets? But this isn’t the actual interview and I don’t have a ton of time so if we can wrap this up in, oh, say, three to seven minutes I would super appreciate it. Thanks!

A pre-interview is not an interview. Instead it’s a tricky dance. You’ve told your subject that you want to find out all about them, or whatever it is you want to know about. They want to tell you. They are ready to talk. And you want them to — just not too much. Which they may not understand. But the reason is simple. A person’s story is like a kiss. The first time they tell you can feel, and sound, pretty special. So it’s your job to dance around the edges, getting just enough information to ensure it makes sense to move forward.

However, easier said than done, so here are some tips:

Hold Auditions.

Planning a radio story is a lot like planning a movie. At the beginning you storyboard. You think about your dream scenes, plot and characters. You cast your movie/story. If your story is the movie, the pre-interview is the audition. Not everyone you pre-interview will get the part.

Ask yourself the following questions during the pre-interview to help you figure out which interviewees are the right fit for the story:

Are they a good talker?

Is this person the vocal equivalent of jazz hands? When they speak do cupcakes and rainbows and sparkle ponies come out of their mouth? Do I want to listen? Are they easy to understand? Maybe they were prepped by a bad PR person who told them to speak in sound bites and now there are more acronyms and industry lingo in their conversation than sprinkles on a cupcake. (In which case, maybe a cupcake would be a better talker?) Or, maybe they’re just nervous.

If you’re not sure, or worried, turn the pre-interview into a mini dress rehearsal. Use it to see if a fix can be made. Oftentimes people think they need to sound a certain way on the radio and when they find out they don’t, they’re relieved, and, they sound better.

What if they’re a bad talker but I have to talk to them?

Sometimes you have to talk to this one specific person, because he or she is the one expert who can knowledgeably discuss the price of coconuts after Hurricane Matthew, a cartel in Mexico that’s trying to corner the avocado market, a flower collector with allergies, a heartbroken dentist, a citrus economist, the whatever it is that the story is about. In that case . . .

Put a stop to corporate speak/industry jargon/weirdness.

In my dreams there are no acronyms. Instead, my happy place has green grass. Unicorns graze by crystal blue streams and experts contemplate big and important questions, kindly taking the time on their lunch breaks to speak to reporters in easy to understand human-English-talk.

But that’s often not the case. So, when it comes to trying to break down the facades of bad talking I’m completely uncreative — I have rote responses at the ready. (Side note 1: I used to use the tried and true, how would you explain this to a little kid? But to be honest, it never really worked well for me. So now, I have a new go-to favorite — GRANDMA.) I tell potential interviewees, “Grandma is sitting in the corner — in her easy chair. She’s got her knitting. Grandma CANNOT WAIT to hear what you have to say, but she doesn’t know what “a mobile identity credential is” or what a “syndication platform and publication platform, through which some of the OTT offerings, and multiscreen offerings reached consumers,” is. (Side note 2: these are actual words that sources said to me, out loud, with their mouths.) “Grandma can’t understand you! Don’t let grandma down!” One of my favorite examples of how to do this well is this clip of John Nielsen getting a wonky expert to talk about the dangers of avian flu at the zoo in human speak.

Listen to “John Nielson interviewing an expert”

But if they can’t stop sounding like a plastic, monotone soundbite-spewing robot it’s time to bring in the understudy. Or, the cupcake.

Make sure that they’re okay talking about it on the radio and that they know what they’re talking about.

Sometimes these conversations can require special sensitivity. I remember once, for a story on Weekend America, I talked to families that had lost teenage children to alcohol-related incidents. I wanted to find at least two sets of parents who’d reacted differently to that loss. Either by cracking down and getting tough on underage drinking, or, by relaxing their rules. The hope being that their kids would be open, instead of sneaking off to engage in potentially dangerous behavior. Another time I wanted to visit a military base to see how the military was breaking its own rules for how tobacco should be priced. I told my contact in the military exactly what I wanted to do and that the military wouldn’t come off looking very good.

In the end all these pre-interviews saved time, and hopefully made things easier. For me, and for the sources. My contact at the military thanked me for giving him a heads up, and though he did take a lot of notes during my subsequent interviews on base, I was still allowed access to the people and places I’d had in mind. I’d like to think that the pre-interviews also helped prepare the two families who’d lost their kids, and who had the grace to speak about the issue of underage drinking. They knew what to expect, going into the conversation.

Of course, there’s also a whole discussion around ethics we could have here, but in the meantime, you may be worried about feeling pushy or rude. To me, it’s rude not to be transparent and let potential interviewees know exactly what’s in store. It’s rude not to ask questions. Ultimately, you’re going to be representing this person and telling their story. You need to get the facts straight.

You need to make sure they’ve got their facts straight too. It doesn’t matter if they’re supposed to be an expert. If you’re unsure, ask them what the source is of the information they’re quoting. Here’s an example of an interview I did recently with the head of a state DMV. Earlier in the interview he’d mentioned that fewer and fewer millennials these days are getting driver’s licenses. They just text their friends or call an Uber.

Sally: “So you mentioned, we have younger people getting less licenses. How much? What kind of percent are we talking about?”

DMV Guy: “I know that there was a Bloomberg study, a number of years ago, that said about 30% of 19-year-olds, nationwide, have made a decision that there’s no urgency associated with getting a driver’s license. We are not seeing those numbers, but we have seen about a ten percent decrease from what we anticipated . . .

Listen to “Sally and the DMV guy”

Statements like that do not fill me with confidence. Sometimes, terrifyingly, people who are supposed to be experts cite other sources that cited other sources that cited other experts and you end up in a squishy surreal place of no-dependable data, like the Upside down world in Stranger Things.

Bottom line, before you book expensive studio time, and risk angering your editor, wasting your source’s time and your own, confirm. Make sure that your potential interviewee knows what they’re talking about and is on board with talking about their story on tape, and, equally importantly, that they’re okay using their full name. Do not leave the name part for the interview. Chances are they may feel caught off guard and say no. Then it will be sad and we will all cry. Better to find out before you’re in the studio.

Keep it Short.

You might be thinking, that feels like a lot. I’m confused, aren’t pre-interviews supposed to be brief? Yes. They are. But brief is a relative concept and also, it depends on who’ll be doing the final interview. If you’re doing the pre-interview for someone else, a host or another reporter, you can go a little longer. After all, the interviewee won’t be talking to you during the final interview. Sure, they may have talked to you, but it’ll still feel like the first time they’re telling their story to your co-worker.

So how do I know when to stop? Sorry, there’s no scientific answer for this one. I go with my gut. Once people start saying things I wish they’d said on tape (things I know it’ll likely be impossible to get them to repeat) I start to feel icky. Once I reach that point, when someone says something, something I didn’t know that I didn’t know, then, it’s time to stop. Save it for the interview! Often there’s a little luck and a prayer involved.

Take Charge.

Yes, but they keep talking and talking — how do I make them stop? By telling them to stop talking.
I say “I’m going to rudely interrupt you now.” Then, I explain why. Prepare the interviewee ahead of time, then take charge. Tell them ahead of time that it will be a short conversation. Since radio people have a very different, more, literal understanding of time than most mere mortals, you can also tell your person it’s going to feel like it goes really fast.

Garnish Your Rudeness.

A lot of the time that doesn’t work. And I have to interrupt — sometimes multiple times. They’re just so excited about the subject at hand they want to keep talking and talking. So, put some parsley on it. Garnish your rudeness. If you do it right, they’ll feel flattered. “Gosh, this is so wonderful — I want to get it on tape!” Or, “it’s because we want you to sound as good as possible during the real interview. Let’s save it for the interview!” Okay, maybe you don’t have to pour on the flattery that thick, but you get the idea. Sometimes people get this and sometimes they don’t. But the most important thing is not that they like you, it’s that they sound good in the interview.

Wrapping Up!

Phew! You did it. You’re done. Ask if there’s anything else you should ask or that they want to add, or if there’s anyone else that you should talk to. Schedule the interview, and get ready to write your story.

Sally Herships

Sally Herships

Sally Herships is a contributing reporter at Marketplace and has also produced or reported for BBC, The New York Times, NPR, WNYC, and many other shows and outlets. Sally currently teaches writing for radio at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and Sarah Lawrence College; hosts the live storytelling night, Stories You Can't Tell on the Radio; and runs the Radio Boot Camp program at UnionDocs. Her investigative project, "The Five Percent Rule," was featured on ​HowSound, was awarded the 2011 Third Coast Radio Impact Award and Best Prepared Report for the 2011 Front Page Awards from the Newswomen's Club of New York and was an IRE finalist.

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  • James



    Great list Sally, and I love how John Nielson handled that zoo expert.

    Thanks for posting.

    • Sally Herships



      Thanks James! I really appreciate it. I SUPER love how John Nielson handled that zoo expert. May we all handle experts with as much success in the future!

  • Nathan



    I’m a pretty avid Transom reader, but this has been the most concise and helpful article I’ve come across. I’m not a trained reporter and I’ve wondered about most of these questions as I’ve delved further and further into creating good audio.
    Thanks for summarizing and providing the audio!

    • Sally Herships



      Thanks Nathan! What a great compliment indeed.

  • Lantern Jack



    Wow, such an amazingly helpful article! Thanks for sharing your wisdom with the rest of us! If only I had found this month’s ago before I started my podcast…

  • Gregory Haddock



    This is such great advice I had never heard before. It helps me to conceptualize how much I am stealing from my audience when I hear all the good stuff (trying to decide if I want this guest or not) before I get a chance to record it. Thank you, Sally!

  • Jon brown



    Thank you thank you thank you!

    • Sally Herships



      You are welcome!

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