>So I’m a journalist. Or at least I pretend to be. The type of writing I like doing is of the investigative type: investigating the personality of a person. I find the most interesting parts of people tend not to be about their stats, accolades or feats, but instead of how they laugh, how they interpret life, how they react to what I’m saying. Those are the moments I live for, the meats to the bones of my writing.
A little more than three weeks ago I got to interview Venus Williams. The mega-star athlete is, not surprisingly, a South Florida resident, Palm Beach Gardens to be specific. I absolutely love tennis, and I’ve followed her ever since she was a beaded-hair teen blazing onto the scene. Needless to say, I was pretty pumped for the interview.
I got 20 minutes, all on the phone, with her publicist hanging to every word of the conversation.
People ask me how the interview was. I’m truthful. It was OK. Venus was nice, succinct with her answers, exactly how she is on TV. She laughs a lot; she jokes, too. Without giving away too much away of the interview, she gives off the impression that she doesn’t take herself too seriously and wants to be relatable.
When I tell people my interview with her was OK, the reaction is usually “That’s it?! Just OK?” Yeah, I respond. In my head, I wonder all the time what I could have done differently to make the interview better. My boyfriend joked around that I should have asked more questions about little sister Serena. Not personally knowing Venus, I’m not sure I got the “real” Venus. Answers were, as I mentioned, succinct. There really was no elaborating nor strong character building. I’ve covered and watched tennis enough to know that the Venus Williams I got was the same Venus Williams that every other reporter gets. Even Bryant Gumbel when he interviewed her for his TV show “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”
Still, I’ve been kicking myself over what different questions I could have asked, what different interviewing techniques I could have employed. I teach young journalists all the time that they are conductors of their interviews and if it goes well, it’s because of them. Conversely, if it goes poor, it’s because of the interviewer as well. I teach these young’ins that it’s their job to make the interview go smoothly and to get the subject to spill the beans. And now, I feel like such a hypocrite that I may have failed on my own advice.
My publisher keeps telling me “writing is thinking.” Interviewing is thinking, too. The best interviewers make it look easy, effortless. For example, I’m really digging Tavis Smiley’s interviewing skills these days. He asks such good questions and he does it in such a well-intentioned manner that’s full of genuine interest. I’ve been fortunate to interview hundreds of people in my life (wow, I’m getting old!), and a couple dozen of those folks have been celebrities at or near Venus’ stature. At times, interviewing really becomes second nature to me. It’s like being an athlete: I heard that when Tiger Woods is “on” his golf game, the hole looks as big as a paint bucket. Same thing happens when you’re interviewing someone — questions and the delivery of them come with such ease and intrinsic interest. When I’m on, I’m on. I’m not going to say I was off when interviewing Venus (I’m too cocky to ever say I’m off), but I also can’t say that I was on.
But in truth, after having more than three weeks to reflect, it’s hard to pinpoint what I would have exactly changed. Maybe I should have demanded a face-to-face interview. Or requested the publicist get off the line. Either way, I didn’t do any of that. And that’s a lesson I’m going to insist I follow during my next interviews.