Conducting an interview can be a daunting task. Like networking at events or public speaking, there is an art to the interview so subtle that we often think it must be common sense. It looks easy when others do it, but there is a surprising amount of fluster involved when you’re first starting out.
Ideally you want your interviewee, usually called “the talent” in media circles, to be relaxed and content. You want them to walk away from the experience feeling like they said all they needed to and that their points were clear and understood. Likewise, you want to be relaxed yourself, confident in the knowledge that the conversation will steer towards the talking points you want to hit. That’s the vision of a perfect interview, but of course, things never work out to perfection. So here are a few pointers to get you started:
1. Ask the talent how they would like to be introduced
In my work at the University of Melbourne I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by intelligent people with a myriad of titles and interests. Many interviewees will have a number of hats and may want to be described in a way that suits the content or their latest work rather than listing every title and achievement. Remember, brevity is king.
Recently, prior to a panel discussion recording I found that one of the talent had just completed his PhD so he was keen to be introduced under his new title of ‘Doctor’ and the intro information I’d sourced online was now out-of-date. Lucky I’d asked beforehand or we would have had to stop before the intro was down on tape. That would have been a rocky, awkward start.
On other occasions the talent has added their own quirky tidbit when given the allowance to introduce themselves e.g. I’m Susan Harwood, professor of engineering, high chancellor of whatever, and avid Star Wars fan. Nice!
That is another thing to keep in mind, you don’t always have to introduce people, you can allow them to introduce themselves. This gives the listener an added bonus of matching the voice with the person right from the start.
2. Conduct a pre-interview
You can gain more thoughtful answers when pre-interviews are conducted. Plainly speaking, this just means having a conversation about the topic before your interview. Make it informal, over coffee or on the phone. Not over alcohol as this is ethically dubious.
This practice has two great outcomes: first, it gives you some good ideas of where to steer the conversation, what the speaker gets passionate about, interesting points you’d like to hear more about, and what areas make them delve into dry technical talk. Avoid the latter.
Secondly, it gets your talent to start thinking about what they are going to say and how they will say it. The first time you converse they deliver a mix of ideas from the top of their head. If you conduct a second pre-interview these ideas may become more concise. Then when you get in the studio the same phrases and ideas have been mulled over in the time between casual coffee and microphone. You are likely to get a more thoughtful, more polished answer to your question.
3. Get the talent to repeat the question in their answer
This gives you the flexibility to cut yourself out of a section allowing more flexibility in editing. It also helps the talent really listen to your question and answer more accurately. An example of repeating the question in the answer would be:
Q: “How did you get time travel to work?”
A “The way we got time travel to work was by…”
The best way to make this happen is to simply ask the talent to try and include the question in their answer. Tell them this in your preamble before hitting record, while you…
4. Explain your role and mood of the podcast
Let the talent know what they are in for – if they can be casual, even controversial, or whether you want more formal and definitive answers.
In a recent podcasting experience, I’d conducted pre-interviews, plus attended a few presentations of my talent, so it was expected and known that I was familiar with their work. Yet I wanted to ask some ignorant questions in the interview, as if I had no prior knowledge. This might have thrown my talent into confusion, so I explained before recording that my role was to ask that of an ignorant observer – that I wanted to ask questions that any listener might be thinking, or interject for clarity at times.
Having this preamble let my talent relax as they knew what to expect. It meant I didn’t suddenly change character without warning when the microphones switched on.
5. Take notes, make soundbites
Sometimes your talent will mention something really interesting in the midst of explaining something else and you don’t want to break their train of thought. Sometimes they say something beautiful or potent, but it was surrounded by other words and you’re not sure there is enough space either side to cut it into a soundbite later. The only logical step is to ask them to repeat the thought – but how do you do this in a way that seems natural and not contrived. So that you’re not asking them to act?
I’ve found the best way is just to make a brief note and then later, when there is a space in flow, say something along the lines of “you know I really loved it when you touched on x, could you say something further on that?” or “when you were talking about the x, you just said it so perfectly/beautifully, would you be able to tell us that again?”
Putting a compliment before your request gets people acting for you without actually asking them to act. You get the perfect piece of tape you need, they get a nice ego stroke. Win/win. Plus, as with the pre-interview system, sometimes ideas come out better the second time around.
Hope these brief tips have been helpful. May your interviews always be smooth and your soundbites inspiring.