It happens. You get the call from your division leader, pastor or a client: “Hey, so and so is in town and this is their only chance for an interview. Let’s do it today.” The plethora of reasons surrounding why this happens are secondary to the fact that when you get the call, you gotta move. There’s just one problem:

How do you interview someone you’ve never even talked to before?

Whether you’re interviewing for an in-depth life-change style story, a video with journalistic appeal or a business/ministry profile, the three tips below will help you interview on the fly and get the gold you need to edit an excellent piece.

Research What You Can

Unless the minutes that span between the moment you get “the notice” and the actual interview equal zero, you’ve got a bit of time. Use what you’ve got. Get online and find out as much about the individual as you can. Attempt to talk to the interviewee on the phone for any amount of time. Talk to anyone you can find who knows anything about the story and interviewee AT ALL. You can’t do all the pre-production work you want, but you can do something.

I’ll give you a real life example. Last year I got the chance to interview a pastor from Zimbabwe. I didn’t expect the opportunity – as I don’t live in Zimbabwe – but last minute I found out he’d be in town. I couldn’t talk to him, but I was able to get online and read all about his church. The information I gathered from that time of research was enough to push me through the interview and get him saying what I needed.

Raise Topics, Not Questions

It’s difficult to ask about what you don’t know, but it’s easy to get someone talking about what they’re passionate about. Now that you’ve used your research time to discover SOMETHING about your interviewee, you can jot down topics of conversation. Maybe you can’t be specific and ask a question like, “Tell me about that specific situation in your childhood,” but you can say, “Talk to me about growing up.” From there, you can think on the fly and steer the conversation based on the topics you’ve raised and the details they’re communicating.

To expound a bit here, I’ll cover the three types of stories I mentioned above and how to raise topics for each.

For a life change story. Follow the action by asking them to talk about their childhood, then the tension they experienced in their life growing up, then their “come to Jesus” moment. You’ll find the story through the terrain.

For an outreach/ministry/business profile. Start by asking your subject who they are and what they do. From there you can raise the topic of the passion of their work. Then, ask about what the future holds.

For a journalistic piece. Ask your interviewee to establish who they are and where they’re located, ask them to talk about the matter at hand (whatever that story may be), and then the moral they’ve learned or hope others see.

I realize a lot of this seems a bit vague, but remember, the power in the piece is going to come out of the mouth of your subject. You just need to guide the way.

Take Your Time

Finally, just because you jumped in super fast into this interview, doesn’t mean you have to get out so quickly. Take your time. Be patient, ask questions and don’t be afraid to cover anything and EVERYTHING you can think of. Your interviewee is here and you might not get another chance. Take advantage of the time you have and don’t be afraid to search out every aspect of their story.

One of the things I like to remind myself in these scenarios is, “I really can’t mess up. This just came about unexpectedly, so I’ll have some fun.” Take a moment to warm up your interviewee with some small talk and start rolling. I promise, if you’ll follow the aforementioned steps, you’ll be set up for success to get a great interview.

Happy storytelling.