I‘ve been interviewing people for years, mostly for radio, and although every interview, its purpose and its format (print/audio/video), is different, there are a number of key techniques common to all…
Setting up an Interview
Interviews don’t have to be pre-planned. You never know when you’ll find yourself talking to somebody and realise they have something interesting to say. Always be ready to ask “can we do a quick interview?”.
The whole point about an interview is that it is essentially ‘one on one’. You can interview more than one interviewee but there is only one interviewer. So you need to make sure you have their full, un-divided attention. Take them away from other people and distractions.
Explain what you want to talk about, who is going to read/listen/watch it, how long the interview will take, how you are going to publish it (article, print interview, edited video or ‘as live’), and when you are going to publish it. That will help to put them at ease and set the framework for the interview. If they know the interview will be published next week they (hopefully) will say “we’re opening on 18th” and not “we’re opening tomorrow”. If they know your blog is about family travel they won’t blather on about their honeymoon suites.
If the interview is pre-planned, never give them your questions in advance. Two reasons: they’ll be confused and maybe even hostile if you wander ‘off-script’ but even more important, you don’t know what your questions will be in advance. Interviewing is about listening and discovery.
That said, if the interview is organised in advance, do some basic research on the subject. It’ll give you a clearer idea of where the interview might lead you, key elements you want to talk about, and it’ll make your interviewee much more responsive if they see you have some knowledge of the subject.
Before you start, double check you have got their name right, its spelling and its pronunciation, and their job title. Handy if you are going to use it during the interview and it’ll save you the embarrassment of having to phone them for it later.
Establish a connection. Use the moments before you start to relax your interviewee by chatting about their personal interests or what’s been happening today. Crack a joke, maybe at your own expense. While you’re fiddling with your recorder, tell them you almost left it at home, or that you and technology don’t get on easily, or something. Build a rapport so that the interview feels more like an extension of this ‘comfy chat with a mate’.
Open questions are better than closed. If you ask the question: “The festival is in May isn’t it?” The answer you’ll probably get (and deserve) is “Yes”. Instead ask an ‘open’ question: “When is the festival held?” You might still just get “May”, but you are more likely to get “Well it’s normally held in the third week of May, but this year it is being held in the first week because…”
Leave space for them to answer. People don’t like awkward silences and will rush to fill them. If your interviewee gives you a short answer and you want more detail, don’t ask another question straight away. Pause. Usually they’ll start talking again and often this is the moment when they give you something valuable.
“Why?” is an excellent question. As my old mentor taught me, “why?” is like leaving a pause. It makes people re-evaluate the answer they’ve just given and can often produce an un-expected nugget. It is also a good emergency button. If your mind goes blank and you can’t think of your next question, ask “why?” and buy yourself some time!
Don’t lead them. Sometimes it’s tempting to set up a question by prefacing it with some detail that indicates what you are after or expecting. EG. “Your town has a rich Roman history. What do most visitors want to see when they come here?” It may satisfy your expectation when he answers “the Roman Baths”, but if you had simply asked “What do most visitors want to see when they come here?” you would have learned that despite the rich Roman legacy, most visitors come for the Museum of Modern Art.
If you are recording, check the recording before letting your interviewee go. Every journalist has one lost or failed recording horror story.
Tell them to anticipate an email or call from you soon, because there is bound to be something you have forgotten. (Makes it easier when there is!)
Control and listen. What is an interview? It is a formalised conversation directed by one party. You need to be firmly in control in a gentle way.
At the same time you also have to really ‘listen’, and this is the hardest thing to learn. You’ll only find out afterwards if you have been ‘listening’ when you play the interview back to yourself. If you realise on playback that your interviewee didn’t mean what you thought he meant – maybe he was carrying on a thought from his previous answer and you assumed this was a new idea – then you’ll know you weren’t ‘listening’.
‘Listening’ is not a technique you can be taught. You can only learn it by listening to your own interviews. It’s an experience thing… and I still get it wrong sometimes.
Those are some of the techniques common to all interviews, but clearly, different formats have different approaches.
How’s your shorthand? These days I can only think of two journalists I know who can write in shorthand. So for the rest of us mortals, that means recording it. You never know when a good interview might come along but we all have smartphones now, so at least you no longer have to take a recorder with you on the ‘off chance’.
Print interviews are the easiest to process. The interview can be more chatty and then you can make up the questions to fit.
Its ease & flexibility means that, if you are so inclined (I’m not), you could give your interviewee the option to preview before publication, knowing that any corrections can be accommodated easily.
Broadcast Interviews – ‘Live’ is best
… Never give your interviewee the option to preview broadcast interviews before publication! They will never be satisfied and you’ll never finish editing!
That is assuming you are going to edit at all. If you are recording an audio or video interview to embed in your blog. The big question is: ‘as live’ or ‘edited’?
Edited has obvious advantages; you can cut out the mistakes and boring bits, but doing it ‘live’ means you don’t have to edit.
My personal preference is to do it ‘live’ whenever possible.
Online podcasts and video are a lot less formal than traditional broadcasting. Nobody expects you to be Larry King or Jeremy Paxman and they don’t expect broadcast quality from your iPhone or Flip, so recording ‘as live’ isn’t as daunting as you might think.
Audio is rarely used online these days but if you want to podcast or use a social media site like Audioboo where you can easily upload short ‘as live’ audio interviews from your mobile, then you really want to avoid editing.
That goes doubly for video. Audio editing is pretty straightforward but as the videobloggers will testify, editing a video interview is in another league (and requires good soft/hardware). Synching edited audio with the video means inserting cutaway clips of yourself, your surroundings or some relevent bit of footage to cover the gap. Very fiddly!
So if you can, avoid editing videos interviews. Instead record them ‘live’ and…
…keep them short. “Less is more” as the saying goes and both print and broadcast interviews should be short and sweet. Try to keep audio and video interviews inside 4 mins. Try to keep print interviews inside 800 words.
Do you have any interview tips & techniques?
Image: Bots High