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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

9 Secrets to Giving a Great Interview

Cindy Woodsmall is a New York Times best-selling author whose connection with the Amish has been featured on ABC Nightline. Her ability to authentically capture the heart of her characters comes from her real-life connections with Plain Mennonite and Old Order Amish families.

Cindy is the mother of three sons and two daughters-in-law, and she and her husband reside in Georgia. Visit her Web site.

Interview Tips I Wish I’d Known Beforehand

I love writing! I love long
days and nights in my home office with the window open and research books all around me.

I’m an introvert. I’ve heard that most fiction writers are. Being introverted is not the same as being shy, although shy people are introverted. An introvert draws strength from quietness and solitude. An extrovert draws strength from get-togethers and other people-oriented events.

The first time I realized how much of an introvert I am, I was seventeen and on a first date. I was young and athletic, and had taken the time to straighten my lengthy hair, do my nails and make-up, and had even bought an especially nice-looking outfit. Our plan was to meet up with a group of friends at someone’s home and have pizza. When my date asked if we could go to a drive-thru for dinner instead, I felt RELIEF wash over me. Right then I understood something about myself; I was a true introvert.

Until then I kept thinking that I avoided going out because I wasn’t “pulled together” enough. But it became clear that even when at my best, I preferred quiet seclusion. After going to the drive-thru, we went for a long, quiet stroll in a nearby park and tossed bread crumbs to the ducks. The only way I would have enjoyed that night any better was if I’d been alone with a pen and journal. (Too long ago for laptops to have been a part of the scene, man.)

So writing sounds like a good career choice for me, right?

Well… so far this year I’ve done segments for ABC’s Nightline and Fox 5’s Good Day Atlanta, plus multiple i
nterviews for newspapers. I’ve done numerous live radio and television interviews. I spent about eight hours with a journalist from the Wall Street Journal and four hours in my home with a journalist from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Live interviews are especially difficult because you often don’t know what the person is going to ask, and if your mind goes blank, you still have to say something.

At this point you should feel sorry for my husband, who loves my quiet temperament, especially during football season. If I can’t sleep because of an upcoming interview, or I’m walking around mumbling to myself because I’m displeased with how an interview went, he’s the one who has to deal with my angst and try to help me through it.

Whether you’re introverted or extroverted, interviews are part of being an author. I’ve been doing them for the last thirty-six months, two weeks, and eight days. I’ve had some truly great interviews and some really embarrassing ones. Here’s the good news: I survived. And along the way I’ve learned things that are equally valuable to both personalities. These tips will help the introverted prepare for things that are as tough for them as a month in solitary confinement would be for an extravert.

There are many things that can cause an interview to go badly, but here are some tips that will help you be as prepared as possible. I don’t get it right nearly as often as I’d like, but following these suggestions helps me focus on my goal.

1.) Write out the most likely questions to be asked and write out several answers—keeping in mind that the response needs to be less than thirty seconds. Practice giving an answer with a timer in hand or your eye on the wall clock’s second hand. If your answer is too long, rework it.

2.) Remember that the transition from the interviewer’s question to your answer is the most important part to get right. Your first sentence that follows the interviewer’s question is your topic sentence for that question. Remember topic sentences from your days in high school and college? You need a topic sentence, even for a thirty-second answer.

3.) Practice the questions and answers before every interview. A live radio show does not allow time for searching your thoughts. Know the answers, but then lay your notes aside and talk as if you’re on a live stage. The idea is to give responses in a fresh and energetic manner. So study like it’s a test, and then trust that you’ll know enough to sound spontaneous. Practicing for radio interviews will not only help to prepare you for television interviews, it makes your voice sound real and personal as well as professional.

4.) Write out the questions you hope an interviewer never asks. Think of several questions you absolutely do not want to be asked, and plan for how you’ll respond if the interviewer asks those questions. Practice answering the unwanted questions in a succinct manner and with the most positive view possible.

5.) Use nouns instead of pronouns. As you do interviews, you’ll discover all sorts of issues about your speech patterns that you weren’t aware of before. For example, I hadn’t realized how much I overused pronouns. I would say “the Amish” at the start of the interview and then use the word “they.” That can be confusing for those who come in during the middle of an interview or when I’ve also spoken about the non-Amish. Don’t be afraid of using a noun too much.

Most interviews are brief and listeners don’t want to feel lost during what should be a clear and concise talk. Using nouns as much as possible is especially important during an interview that is being taped. Most producers cut out certain parts. If they find a great line they’d like to keep but you used a pronoun instead of a noun, they’ll have to either toss that segment or hope the audience can follow.

6.) Practice good diction all the time. I used to have great pronunciation of words. I even won recognition for it once. But that was thirty-something years ago, before the ways of my beloved new home in the Deep South took over. Now I often forget to put the g on the end of an –ing word. I’m not sure when that little colloquialism became my friend, but after I spoke at a women’s event, one lady approached me and brought that quirk to my attention. I sincerely appreciated her telling me that. Now I put effort into adding that elusive g and listening to my speech patterns.

7.) Practice agreeing with statements you don’t agree with. During one of my first interviews, moments before going live on a television broadcast, an interviewer heard something about me from her producer that piqued her interest. The issue was not related to my writing at all, but at the top of the show she tossed out a statement, expecting me to agree with her. I didn’t. I could either say I agreed with her and go against what I believed, or I could disagree with her on air, which would probably embarrass her and would certainly start the interview off on the wrong foot.

Unsure of what to do, I shared that I’d seen wonderful successes come out of the public school system. She felt affronted, and needless to say, it wasn’t my best interview. I don’t know that we ever talked about my books. After the interview, I asked my publicist what would have been a better way to respond. She told me to fashion a sentence that would start out with affirmation for the interviewer and end with an “on the other hand” statement. In this case, I could have said, “Yes, homeschooling has merit, and I enjoyed years of it with my own children, but I’m thankful we have the right in this country to choose what’s best for our children, because many times public school is the best route to go.”

8.) Practice getting an interview back on track. Sometimes an interviewer, like the one above, will start off on a topic unrelated to your book, expecting to bring it back around later, but that doesn’t happen. Think about phrases you can use that will help accomplish what you’re there for: to talk about your book. Using the example above, after I made my statement about homeschooling versus public school, I could have added something like this: “You know, it’s interesting that we’re talking about schooling, because the Old Order Amish have school in a one-room schoolhouse with grades one through eight, and the children begin school not knowing the English language.” With that transitional phrase, I would’ve agreed with the interviewer, shared my personal sentiments, and moved on to talking about what I came to the interview to talk about: my book.

9.) Use key phrases to turn a conversation back around. “You know, it’s interesting that you mentioned (use a word or phrase the interviewer just used), because in my (name of the novel being promoted) there is a character who is struggling to…” Or, “I love the concept of (use a word or phrase the interviewer just used), because in (name of the novel being promoted) there is a real sense of…” Or, “That reminds me of…” Or, “That’s a great point. It’s similar to (mention a character or plot thread in your book)...”

The above devices may sound too self-promotional, but I believe the audience and the interviewer will appreciate your getting to the real topic: your book. Just don’t be too quick to use them. If the interviewer is at the top of the show and wants to mention the weather, give him or her a chance to bring the topic back around to your book before you step in with a “key phrase.” If the interviewer doesn’t bring it back around within the first few minutes, be prepared to jump in. This will not only ensure that the interview goes well, it will also increase your chances of being added to their list of authors to invite back on their show. Sorry, introverts, but our aim is to do as many interviews as possible and to end with the interviewer saying, “Let’s do this again for your next book!”

Keep in mind, interviewers want their shows to go well and be entertaining to their audiences. So ask them beforehand what types of things they would like to know (request a list of questions if they have them). Ask about their demographics (if you don’t already know) so you can structure your interview to their audience. I haven’t had much success with a request for a list of specific questions. I think that’s due in part to the spot interviewers are put in. They don’t have much prep time and they want to keep things fresh as opposed to sounding well rehearsed and staged.

As much as interviewers may want a few minutes to prepare, they usually don’t get that luxury. Many don’t even have the chance to read your book. As the person with the most at stake in this interview, you need to help them be prepared. I once heard that I should prepare a fact sheet to send the interviewer beforehand, listing facts about my books and me. But by the time the interviewer thinks about needing one, it’s often too late. I’ve found a better answer is to have a well-organized, easily maneuverable Web site. You may even want to dedicate a page of your site specifically for interviewers. List the books you’ve published, any awards earned, personal information about yourself that you’re willing to share with the audience, a brief synopsis of your current book, and a list of sample questions.

With practice using tools that connect with your audience, it won’t matter whether you’re a nervous introvert who’s uncomfortable in a crowd or a nervous extravert who loves crowds but feels unsure of yourself in an interview.

Authors usually spend six months to a year writing a novel that will connect with readers, but that connection often begins with an interview that lets people know there’s a new book on the market. Being prepared for an interview is as important as writing the book.

If you have an interview that goes badly, console yourself by watching televised interviews of politicians—local or national. Look for their bobbles, losing a train of thought, and poor word choices. Those things happen to even brilliant people, so of course it’s going to happen to regular folks like us. Knowing you’re in good company is guaranteed to help put your own interviews in the right perspective.


The Sound of Sleigh Bells

Loneliness echoes inside Beth Hertzler from the life she once had. Children’s whispers and laughter call to her from a life she only dreams of. A gifted carver holds the answer to both within his hands—but can Beth step beyond yesterday in order to embrace tomorrow?

The Sound of Sleigh Bells is a heartwarming Christmas novella where lack and abundance inside an Amish community has power for good when it’s tucked inside love.

Romantic Times 4 ½ stars for The Sound of Sleigh Bells ~ This is a wonderfully written, transformative story of two Amish families at Christmastime. It will bring sleigh-riding memories to life as readers vicariously join in this jolly and exciting holiday tradition.

To read a review of Sleigh Bells, click here.

9 comments:

Gina Holmes said...

Hey Cindy! What great information and advice. Thanks for sharing with us.

Mary DeMuth said...

I'm tweeting this one. Great article! You should pitch it to The Writer or Writer's Digest. Great information!

Julie Garmon said...

Love it--totally identify with the introverted novel writer in you. :-)

Thanks, Cindy.

Nick said...

Great points. I've been on both sides of the interview (although not as an author) and I agree with what you say.

For me, it is most important to just be relaxed and think before I speak.

Thanks for the tips!
-Nick

Tracey Bateman said...

Awesome! You should definitely pitch it to writers magazines, Cindy!

Cindy Thomson said...

Thanks, Cindy. Great and sound advice. I have only done a handful of interviews, but I have a live radio interview coming up next month, so I really appreciate your tips.

Carrie Turansky said...

Great advice! thanks, Cindy!

Aggie Villanueva said...

Thank you Cindy (applause). I'm equally an introvert and extrovert, writer and photographer, and I found your advice excellent and insightful. I'll be referencing this page on all my social sites for a long time.

Cindy Woodsmall said...

Thank you for the great comments! I'm so glad the article is helpful. I hadn't thought of teaching this or sending it to a magazine. THANK YOU!