The dos and don’ts of arts interviews

The dos and don’ts of arts interviews

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 24/06/15

Interviewing artists for magazines, newspapers and blogs can be tricky. Whether you’re chatting to comedians, writers, musicians or photographers, there are some basic rules. Arts journo and former IdeasTap commissioning editor Rachel Segal Hamilton asks fellow culture hacks for tips and shares a few of her own…

DO ease them in. Ask how their journey was, what they’ve been up to, how long they’re in the UK for - some friendly small talk will help you to establish a positive rapport. You’re not John Humphrys interrogating the PM. Usually a relaxed, happy interviewee is preferable. If you’re representing a publication they’re unlikely to know, (briefly) tell them a bit about it. With a phoner, especially one you’ve arranged yourself rather than through a PR, check it’s still a good time to chat.

“DO your research” says Eleanor Turney, managing editor of the Space and Theatre and Dance web editor for The British Council. Chances are they’re promoting a current film, show, book or exhibition - make damn sure you’ve actually seen it. Even better, research around this. Familiarise yourself with their earlier work, their career trajectory, the landscape they work in, their contemporaries and rivals. This knowledge will give you confidence, helping you improvise on the day in response to their answers.

DON’T trust technology. My dictafail has let me down too many times to mention. Bring along spare batteries for your recording device or make sure it’s fully charged. Glance over at it from time to time to check it’s still recording. Have back-up tech in case it suddenly runs out of memory. And if you’re interviewing someone super-famous, use more than one recorder just in case.

“DO ask questions they're not anticipating. And don't be scared to be personal. What's your earliest memory? What do you worry about?” says British Journal of Photography online editor and freelance film writer Tom Seymour. Try to ask them questions that you can’t easily find the answer to elsewhere. What you want from the limited time you have is to find out stuff you couldn’t by other means. Ideally, a scoop - something they haven’t already said to another publication. You can always fill in contextual or biographical information yourself. Plus the process is more fun for them if they aren’t answering the same question for the billionth time.

DO remember your reader. When I’m doing an IdeasMag interview I’ll tend to focus on career, creative process and practical advice because that’s what people come to IdeasTap for. But when I’m doing an interview for another outlet, I might ask more about themselves or the ideas behind a particular project. I’ll assume the reader of a specialist photography magazine has greater knowledge of the medium than that of a mainstream newspaper. Be guided by your imagined reader and what they want to get from the piece. Information? Analysis? Amusement?

“DON’T be afraid to ask them to spell names,” says former IdeasTap commissioning editor Nell Frizzell. Same goes for places, dates and any other facts. Never, never assume you’ll be able to catch it on the recording or find it online afterwards. I can assure you from experience this isn’t always the case.  

“DON’T be a fangirl or fanboy. It never ends well,” warns arts journalist Miriam Zendle. It’s very unprofessional. To this end, “don’t ask for an autograph,” says content creator Rhodri Williams. “Ditto photograph,” adds Sky Movies writer and former IdeasTap columnist John Nugent. “Unless it's, like, Arnie or someone. I think everyone’s allowed one.”

“DO shut up when they're talking,” advises Chal Ravens, UK news editor at FACT Magazine. Partly, this will help with transcribing as it can be tricky to make out what they’re saying when you’re blethering over them. Also, it’s just plain politeness. Generally, let your interviewee finish what they’re saying, even if it’s slightly off-topic, as it might take you somewhere interesting and unexpected. That said, if they’re droning on about boring irrelevancies, wait for them to draw breath - they’ll have to eventually - and then leap in, ninja-style, with the next question.

“DO think of follow-up questions,” says Nell. They might give one-word answers or answer multiple questions in one. They might, if you’re lucky, give you more time than you thought you’d have. Be ready to make the most of it. Likewise, figure out which are your most important questions so that if you're unlucky and have less time than you thought you would, you can prioritise quickly.

“DO have a conversation,” recommends arts and culture journalist Matilda Egere-Cooper. You shouldn’t keep looking down to check your notebook. Read your questions or notes through a few times until you’ve committed them to memory - and then freestyle. As blogger and Wildland magazine features editor Matthias says, “There's often plenty of surprises.”

DO ask them if they have anything to add. My very last question is always, “Was there anything you'd like to mention that I didn’t ask you about?” Sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes they just tell you their website url. Sometimes they say something pointless. But sometimes you get that bonus nugget of copy gold which makes your whole interview shine.


Arts writer? What are your interview dos and don’ts? Let us know in a comment! 

Image by Marina Santa Helena, on a Creative Commons license. 

Closing Update

2678 Page views

Journalism articles

Most popular
Our past collaborators