The pre-interview is an underappreciated part of the interview process because it’s hidden from the audience. But if you spend even a few minutes doing it, your interview will be noticeably better.
I added pre-interviews to my process to fix a common problem: guests forgetting to share their most memorable stories.
After recording one of my first interviews, I saw my guest exhale and let out the pressure he built up. “You did great,” I said.
“Thanks, but I wish I told you the story of how I got my first customers. I found a way to automate posting my ads on dozens of Craigslist sites. It violated their rules, but it helped my company take off. I forgot about it when you asked me. When I remembered, the conversation felt too far along to return to it.”
That disappointed me. I started interviewing to understand how founders really built their companies. I hated missing defining moments like that. And I kept missing them. It makes sense—people under pressure can be forgetful.
I needed to find a way to solve this problem for my guests. I wondered, how did major TV shows handle this issue?
Then I remembered watching The Larry Sanders Show, an HBO sitcom loved by talk show producers because of how accurately and hilariously it depicted their jobs. In episode after episode, I watched Larry Sanders’ producers trying to cajole reluctant comedians to sit for a pre-interview.
If TV producers (even fictional ones) thought pre-interviews were that important for professional performers, maybe they would help with my guests too.
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I decided to try a pre-interview. I knew my guests had limited time and wouldn’t get on a call with me unless I explained why they needed to do it. I emailed one of my interviewees. “We should talk. Your interview is going to live online forever and will be found by future employees, investors, etc. I want to make sure you sound good. Would you call me so I could go over what I’ll ask in your interview?”
An hour later, while I was driving, he called. I pulled over and did my first pre-interview. I asked him the questions I planned to ask in the interview and helped him remember his experiences. If a response was too general, I pushed for one that was more specific. If he couldn’t remember an experience, I gave him more quiet space to think.
Out of respect for my guest’s time and mine, I used my interrupting technique more often than in an actual interview. (See the previous section on how to do that.) As soon as I noticed that he had a good story to share, I cut him off. “To keep it sounding fresh at our interview, let’s hold the rest of the story,” I said. Then I moved on to the next question.
Let me say that again: pre-interviews can backfire on you if you don’t cut off your guests’ stories. If I let a guest tell their full story in the pre-interview, they will hesitate to repeat themselves in the actual interview. It’s like they’re afraid of boring me, so I either get a severely shortened, less interesting version of the story, or no story at all.
During the pre-interview, I take notes on the stories my guest told well. This helps me trigger those stories at key moments in the interview. I also make a note of the stories that were too convoluted and should stay out of the interview.
Pre-interviews are a powerful tool that help my guests remember the most important details of their lives and share them clearly. Often, when a listener asks me how I got a guest to open up about a tough topic, it’s because I helped them get comfortable by talking about it in private first.
Over the years, my responsibilities have grown to include selling ads, finding guests, and building a membership site. I eventually reached a point where I couldn’t run Mixergy on my own, so I hired Arie Desormeaux, a full-time producer, to take over pre-interviewing. I started asking interviewees to schedule calls with her before booking their interviews.
My goal was to save time, but I quickly realized a bigger benefit. Having another perspective improves the quality of the pre-interview. I grew up in New York, where bluntness and speed were prized. Arie has a softer touch, so guests open up to her. A founder once told me that he cried in his pre-interview. I immediately texted Arie and asked why she hadn’t told me.
“Oh, it happens too often for me to keep telling you.”
If you recruit a pre-interviewer, look for someone whose style compliments yours in the way Arie’s compliments mine. If you’re fast and direct like me, look for someone who’s more deliberate. If you’re more focused on facts, look for someone who’s curious about the emotional aspects of your guests’ stories.
If you don’t have a team, you might be tempted to send over a list of questions before the interview. I found that shortcut to be much less effective. Most guests will skim the list and move on—some won’t even do that.
In some cases, sending over questions ahead of time can give the guest false confidence. I learned this lesson the hard way when I interviewed the head of a PR agency. Because our time zones made coordination difficult, I let her skip the pre-interview. Before the interview started, she said my questions helped her prepare. Then, to my surprise, she stammered through the entire conversation. She couldn’t even remember details like how she got her first customers. (If anything, this struggle was an ode to her success—she had been in business a long time.)
Still, I wondered why sending the questions ahead of time didn’t help. When the interview was over, I got my answer. She read the questions and saw they were about her life and business, which she understood better than anyone. She assumed she’d know the answers and didn’t take the time to prepare herself.
If you can’t do a pre-interview ahead of time, spend a few minutes with your guest before the interview starts. Use that time to do a mini pre-interview. Say something like, “Before we record, I have a few questions that I’d like some clarification on.” Then ask just the key questions. Move through your questions as quickly as possible. Remember to gently interrupt long stories, even if they’re good. Explain to your guest that you want the stories to sound fresh in the interview.
Don’t assume your guests will be prepared. Don’t let them make that assumption either. Spend some time with your guest to discuss their stories and experience. It’ll make for a better interview for you, your audience, and your interviewee.