What the “It Girl” Knows: The Power of Charm
There’s a reason Britney Spears is still the name on everybody’s lips.
No, she’s not the model of parenting. Yes, she has a well-documented substance abuse problem. But for her fans – of which there are still legions – this is a time of mourning for the Southern success story Britney Spears once was. Say what you will about her music, but girl knew how to give an interview. Don’t believe me? Observe:
Engaging. Self-deprecating. Plenty of laughter, smiles, and polite thank-you’s for her companion, Rosie O’Donnell (and enough charm to make up for that outfit, no?). Ultimately, Britney knew this truth of artists: in an interview, it is not your product you are selling. You are selling yourself.
PR professionals know this all too well. Here at Phenix & Phenix, we train our authors to give interviews that are compelling, to-the-point, and memorable. But of all the pointers we offer – mention your book title this many times, always use a landline telephone for phoner interviews – I think the most important tip for any author is simply this: charm your reporter.
Easier said than done, I know. But the reason I believe rapport-building is so crucial is that I used to be a reporter myself, and the sources I enjoyed speaking to most – indeed, returned to time and time again for stories – were the ones who made me laugh, were polite, interesting, asked me about my day, etc.
The advice is somewhat self-evident. However, I want to share two stories with you from a reporter’s point of view that will hopefully illustrate my meaning.
In college, I interviewed a very esteemed author for my school newspaper. Now, this is an author who has published 35 novels and 30 short story collections, is the recipient of a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, and has a hallowed place in Oprah’s Book Club: in other words, a freak of intellectual nature. So she doesn’t exactly need the media anymore (and certainly not the Southwestern Megaphone) to increase her fame. And it’s a good thing for her. Because as an interview subject, she is beyond terrifying.
Me: So! Tell me about your new book.
Very Esteemed Author: I thought you had read it.
Me: Oh, yes, I have – um, almost finished! – but for our readers…
VEA: I did very little research.
Me: On the book’s subject, Marilyn Monroe, you mean?
VEA: (Withering tone) Yes.
Me: Huh! Isn’t that something. So what inspired you to write about Marilyn Monroe?
VEA: Are you a runner?
VEA: RUN. DO YOU RUN.
Me: Oh, uh, yes…from time to time I like a good run. Um, how about you?
…And it only got more awkward. That is because this author’s genius is so large that she is not a mere mortal who speaks like mere mortals do. Anyway, I was happy to finish the interview early, write my story, and never get back in touch with her again for a follow-up interview. Yikes.
My second story does not involve an author, but a tattoo artist named Bob. Bob runs a small tattoo studio here in Austin that’s been around since the 70s, and is world-famous among industry types. When I walked into his shop, he immediately invited me to take a seat. Asked me how I was doing, offered me tea. Before I knew it, an hour had passed, and what was supposed to be an “interview” turned into an intimate conversation in which Bob told me funny stories from his life, listened to my questions as if they were the most fascinating queries ever posed, laughed often and heartily. He was authentic, he was kind, he was utterly charming. I loved talking to him.
By the end of our interview, I felt so comfortable with this man that I did the unthinkable (for me, anyway): I asked Bob to give me a tattoo. My first.
As an author, it’s obviously not tattoos you’re selling, but your book. Likewise, when the “It Girl” of the month makes her rounds to Conan, Regis & Kelly - all the hot exposure stops – you’ll notice she spends just a fraction of the time talking about her latest movie/CD/signature fragrance, and more time just being generally pleasant while answering the interviewer’s questions. This is tough to do when you are Paris Hilton, you’re launching a new perfume, and all David Letterman wants to discuss with you is…jail food. And jail outfits. And like a champ, she indulged him.
Here at P&P we emphasize the importance of using supporting statistics during your interview, as well as frequent mentions of your credentials, along with other tips that are absolutely helpful. But for the example at the tattoo parlor, I was actually there to interview someone else – a different artist at the same studio – and I ended up writing the story using mostly quotes from Bob because he was more fun to talk to.
So my #1 Interview Tip is this, authors: get thee to Charm School. To get on a reporter’s good side, it’s not just your book you’re selling. It’s you.