Where would you interview someone for maximum impact? The more meaningful the site is to your subject, the better the interview. We call this principle “intimate space.” The closer you get to your subject’s heart, your subject’s real self, the more information and insight you gain, a principle especially important in profiles.
Important people have all sorts of screens and defenses to keep you out of their intimate space. So you have to work your way in, often over a long period of time, a series of interviews.
What’s the least intimate space? Written answers to written questions. Two problems: you can’t see the subjects or their surroundings, and the answers are probably written or vetted by staff. The source controls everything, and you can’t ask follow-up questions..
Next is telephone interviewing. Again, you can’t see the subject, and the subject can’t see you. Visual clues play a huge role in establishing a relationship of trust, the key to deep interviews. Some interviewers are terrific with just aural clues, but most of us aren’t.
You want to interview, if possible, on site. For a while, let’s stipulate that the subject is the male CEO of a company. You want to interview inside his building, which has different levels of intimacy in different places. A corporate meeting room reflects the culture of the company, not the subject. It was designed by decorators to reflect corporate values. And meeting rooms tend to be rather bare, lacking in clues to your subject.
Corporate board rooms have the same problem, but are more intimate in that they have more signals on the walls, such as portraits, awards, certificates, prizes, etc. The décor makes statements about the company, but probably says little about your subject, beyond his approval.
His office is more intimate; it’s where he works. Again, it will be professionally decorated, with corporate iconography, but it will also include personal touches, such as diplomas, pictures (especially signed ones), trophies, etc. The subject’s desk is a gold mine of information, and you need to see it. What’s on it, and what isn’t?
Subjects tend to decorate their offices with their hobbies. When I interviewed two newspaper publishers in their offices, one had model airplanes hanging from the ceiling, and the other had animal heads glaring from the walls. You develop such clues to character during the initial chat.
Some subjects have two offices, one public and the other a private retreat. Thomas Jefferson had a large house all to himself at Poplar Forest in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he could escape family and visitors. These private lairs are more intimate still.
Some CEOs manage by wandering around, sort of moving intimate space. You’ll learn a lot by simply following them, watching not only what they do and say, but also how others react to them.
Now for a leap in intimacy, into private life. Interviewing at home may be more intimate, and the house has levels of closeness: living room, parlor, office, etc. Julia Child’s kitchen combined the intimacy of a home and a workplace. I know one reporter who interviewed in a bedroom and noticed a key detail on a pillow.
What could be more intimate than a bedroom? Interviewing inside the sources’ passion, such as next to their model train layout, in their peony garden, or on their sailboat. (Remember Sally Field on Paul Newman’s boat in “Absence of Malice?”) If you want to get really close to me, we’ll talk inside my sculpture studio.
[Got any anecdotes about penetrating intimate space?]