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How to pre-interview, part 2
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Last year I was developing an audio project exploring the forces that block us from our gut instincts. After one particular pre-interview, the prospective character emailed me to say she didn’t want to take part. She wrote: “Trauma is not a consumable.”
I realised that, during the pre-interview, I hadn’t properly explained the overall goal of the show, and how my intention was definitely *not* to spotlight traumatic moments just for the sake of it. I hadn’t clearly communicated how I would take care of the story.
It was a difficult interaction, but an important lesson. It’s a big deal to ask someone to air painful moments of their lives on tape. So pre-interviewing is not just an opportunity for audio producers to screen guests. It should also be used as a moment to explain our intentions to guests, and how we view our responsibility as storytellers.
In part two of this guide to pre-interviewing (make sure to check out part 1 here), I speak to author and podcast host Laura Cathcart Robbins about how she pre-interviews for her show, The Only One In The Room — and how she convinced a guest to tell a really traumatic story from their past.
Why do you do pre-interviews?
For my podcast, what I’m asking our guests to do is jump right into a very intimate and vulnerable story. Sometimes that might involve trauma.
I've certainly interviewed people without pre-interviewing them first. But I find that without the pre-interview I’ll spend about 15 minutes of the [main] interview getting to that place where the guests feel safe enough to be vulnerable with me.
And the listener can feel that, right? So they're getting a guest that's a little bit guarded. And so by the time they kind of lean into it, maybe the listener has switched off.
So your pre-interview is less of a traditional screening process — you’ve already decided you’d like to interview the guest — then your pre-interview is more about informing the guest about your show and hearing their story ahead of time. Am I getting that right?
I do have two processes. I have a screening call that I'll do when I know there's a good story but I’m not sure if the guest is a good storyteller. Like I don’t know if they’re going to have the energy to tell the story. When people have excellent stories but they’re kind of one-note, that’s not going to work. I don’t do the screener as often – usually I already know. In that case I make it very clear that it’s a screening call to see if they're a good fit.
What I call my pre-interview is me getting to know the guest before the interview – kind of like a first date.
The title of my show is The Only One… [previous ep titles include The Only Black Queer Woman Explaining Blockchain and The Only Hispanic Conservative in the Room]. So another purpose of the pre-interview is to find out what that hook [title] is going to be.
Then I’m listening for the broad strokes of their story. If they start getting into too much detail, I’ll say, “I don’t want to get into that now; I’d like to keep it fresh for the podcast.” I’ll just cut them off – not too many times because that feels rude! I’ll let them know this is exciting stuff and it’s important that my reaction during the podcast is real.
It’s difficult to find out if people can speak visually, and bring a vibrancy to their memories – without hearing the whole story during the pre-interview. How do you approach that?
Usually I’ll allow them to do that for maybe the first third of their story. I can hear their phrasing and cadence. So if it's a 20 minute call, which is my norm, the first five minutes will be [small talk], and for the second 10 minutes they'll be telling me a story. Then for the rest of it I'll be going through our process for them.
What storytelling qualities are you looking for?
The best that I can say is, when I forget that I'm doing a pre-interview, and I'm just fascinated while they're telling it.
A good storyteller is self aware. And not just a good storyteller, but a good interviewee is self aware, they know when to go on and when to stop. They can read the room. It's like a dance.
Sometimes I have a great story, and a really vibrant, energetic storyteller who goes on for too long. I’ll be able to pick that up in the pre-interview, and then when we sit down for the main interview I can say, “hey, look, there was a little tangential in the pre interview, which is great. But just know that I'm going to jump in and guide you because I want to make sure we stay on time. And I don’t want to miss any of your story.”
What are some red flags?
If I'm bored during this call it's really a no go for me. Or if they're pitching something, a product or a book or a coaching, it's not going to work for my podcast. If they are unable to get off that pitchy track, I know it's not going to work for our audience.
How do you phrase the ‘no’ at that screening stage?
I just say, as gently as possible, “I really thank you for your time. I don't think your story is a great fit for us at this time.”
You mentioned that your show often involves stories that touch on trauma. How do you approach that during the screening and pre-interviewing stage?
We’ve had parents come on to talk about their child’s death, for example. I’ll make sure to do a lot of research beforehand, and see if / where they’ve talked about it before.
Then I'll say to the guest, “I'm so honored that you're coming to share this on my podcast. I just want to make sure that we take really good care of this story. Anything that you say, that later on you wish you hadn’t shared, we will take it out. I want you to be happy with this.”
I'm not going to compromise my integrity for the story, ever. I’ll also never go anywhere near anything that's off the table for them.
And I’m very mindful of how I phrase questions [about the traumatic event]. I try not to ask direct questions about something that might be really tender, especially if it’s more fresh. For example: “Is there anything you want to say about that?” Or “is it okay if we talk about that time in your life?”. I’m not going to ask them what it felt like when their son died.
I try to actually make sure there’s some distance between the trauma and the time of my interview.
And sometimes it’s not good – like they’re not ready. And they gloss over it, or they’re guarded, or they don’t get to the feelings around it. That's just the way it goes.
It is a combination of me being really aware and communicating that to them, that this is precious, and I'm not going to exploit you under any circumstances. And if they want to call it off, it's completely up to them. I just hand them the steering wheel, basically.
What do you do in those situations where you can’t get to the feelings at the heart of it?
We’ve scrapped episodes a couple of times. And sometimes we’ll just run with it anyway, because the episode is still a good enough story.
Have you ever convinced a guest to come on the show and tell their story — even if it involves trauma — and they were reluctant?
I have a friend, Rebecca Gayheart, who’s an actress. Years ago she was the driver of a car that was in an accident, and a child was killed.
Oprah and Ellen asked her to tell the story. She declined. She never wanted to talk about it. I was her friend then, and I didn’t know much about it — only what I’d read in the tabloids.
And so [later] when I started the podcast, she and I had lunch. I said, “Do you think you’re ready to tell this story? And if you are, would you tell it to me, on the show? It would really really help me out. Because the podcast is just starting. And I'm your friend and I would take really good care of it. And if it doesn't work the way you want it to, we would drop it.”
It took a couple of lunches, and a couple of phone calls. And she backed out a couple times. And I was going to let it go. I wasn't going to pursue it at the expense of our friendship.
But then she came back and said yes. We did it in person. The tension in the studio was so high. There was a moment in the story where she said, “It was a soccer ball.”
And I was like, “what?”
She said, “It was a soccer ball. It bounced into the street.
“I didn't know there was a child behind it.”
And then everything broke. We were both crying.
She told this really beautiful story about what happened, and her time with the family afterward. It was not a criminal act, she was never convicted of anything, because it was an accident. It was unavoidable. Unfortunately, he ran out and she didn't have time to stop.
I was fully aware that I was asking her to come on and do something that was going to be difficult for her. And I I expressed my gratitude for that and my awareness of that the entire time.
It was a game changer for the podcast, because she had never told this story. So People Magazine picked it up first, and others followed. It really put us on the map.
How did your friend feel about the episode once it had aired?
She was really stunned by the outpouring from people who had had that same experience, although [who also] had never talked about it. They were thanking her.
There’s a group called “CADI, cause accidental death or injury”: people who are traumatized by an accident that was not their fault that resulted in death or severe injury. There are hundreds of thousands of these people all over the world. So they kind of flooded in. Rebecca had no idea that they existed. The response was, ‘thank you. Thank you [for telling] this story. Thank you for your courage.’
It was really cool to see that be the result instead of just rehashing what had happened. She took a huge risk. And the other thing was, the media stopped clamoring for the story. They finally let it go.