Tips to Being a Great Interviewer
The ink was barely dry in the web browser of my post on how to be a great interview guest, when Michael Cox wrote a reply on how to be a great interviewer. While I don’t agree with all his suggestions – and I’ll let you know my concerns – this is a good list that I wanted to share with you.
By the way, the tips in my original article were created for an audio interview, while Michael’s list assumes you are shooting video.
I couldn’t agree with you more about interviewing. Now, while I am not talking to people who are pushing a particular product (they are artists or curators for [my] project) I think your ten rules are worth printing and posting in lots of offices. I always prepare my subjects by telling them “this will be a conversation, just me, my camera, and you” and that if they say anything that they feel was inappropriate or clumsy, we can just retake it. I’m not out to crucify anyone–in fact, I have used your exact line of it “not being 60 Minutes”!
I believe, on the flip side, that there are some rules or tips on being a great INTERVIEWER, and if you’d like to post them, please do so with my blessing. (If you do, would you please include the vimeo link below?)
- LISTEN: your job as an interviewer is not to score points by appearing to be smarter, or funnier, or angrier, than your guest or subject. Your job is to be the conduit through which the subject’s views and stories are told.
- EYE CONTACT: if you’re also shooting the interview as well as conducting it, set the camera on a tripod, but don’t continually fuss with it. Reframing, zooming in and out, are far less important than maintaining eye contact with the subject. This is especially important for emotion-laden topics, but really, for anyone who is being interviewed, they want to know that you are paying attention to them, not your camera.
Larry adds: In spite of the temptation of simplicity of shooting and interviewing as a one-man-band, the content of your interviews will ALWAYS be better if one person concentrates on asking questions, while another concentrates on the tech. Every time. Always.
- BUT WATCH THOSE LEVELS: Again, if its only you doing the technical stuff along with the interviewing, you are juggling image, sound, your notes, the answers…often, sound levels come a distant fourth in the prioritization. Don’t forget to do a sound check, to make sure you are recording sound, to once in a while look at the sound level. Wear lightweight headphones during the interview.
Larry adds: This is the reason for my earlier note.
- SILENCE: sometimes the best bits of an interview happen after you think the subject has said all they’re going to say. Allow silence, be comfortable with not filling time with the next question, let the subject think for a few minutes, and add to their previous answer.
Larry adds: While true, this is not an option for live interviews.
- QUESTIONS: Its not an interrogation. Questions are to lead the subject, not to embarrass them, not to pin them to the wall. Be respectful of their position: some questions may be inappropriate given their level within the corporation or organization. Have a list of questions but be ready to move into different areas if the discussion seems interesting–you can always return to your list of questions.
Larry adds: Nothing beats planning! Writing questions to structure your thoughts is a GREAT idea.
- ONE HOUR MAX: do not go over an hour; in fact, a forty minute interview is pretty tiring for both interviewer and subject. You can always arrange a follow-up interview if you didn’t get what you wanted, or if there is something in the editing which you now need to have explained by a further interview. Between the time you’ve entered their office or home, set up, explained what you’re going to ask them (see #7), and done the interview, and then thanked them and struck the equipment, you’ve taken up at least an hour of their time. Enough!
- ADVANCE NOTICE: again, this isn’t a surprise news crew interview, so why not supply your subject(s) with some of the questions you’ll be asking them in advance? Give them a few days to think how they’ll answer. Their answers will not be rehearsed, I can almost guarantee that, but they won’t feel unprepared, they’ll have the information at hand (especially if they need to refer to fact and figures in the interview) and they’ll be more relaxed.
Larry adds: This is the only point with which I strongly disagree. My experience is that almost all guests – given the opportunity – will try to memorize their answers and totally fail. This creates stiff, unreal, awkward answers. I often share the general area of my questions, but I never share questions in advance. And, if I don’t like an answer, or feel that the answer was not smooth enough, I’ll ask the same question but in a different way – spontaneity is ALWAYS better then perfection.
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4 Responses to Tips to Being a Great Interviewer
Thanks for posting this. Along with your article on interviews, both of these in combination will create a much smoother and better quality interview. I’m another “one man band” operation, so I try to have as much planning done as possible.
I do several types of interviews. I’ll do Skype wine tastings, straight Skype interviews, winery visits, and in the field interviews with Somms, restaurant owners, etc. Each situation is different and the amount of time my subject has varies. With each, though I do try to at least do a rundown of what we will be doing prior to recording. For everything other than winery visits this is a quick talk about how the video will progress and what I’m looking for. Ultimately they are told they are the star of the show. For wineries I have them give me a tour of the property first and I effectively do a pre-interview with them. This allows me to steer the conversation towards interesting stories or subjects.
This is due to the nature of my show not having multiple takes. Not something that works for many situations, but since I’m normally talking about something being consumed on the spot, I feel editing the content potentially takes away from true first impressions and spontaneity.
I love the newsletter. I seem to gain something from each one.
I absolutely agree 1000% with Larry on the last point. I have done hundreds of interviews and NEVER, NEVER give the interviewee the questions. It will ruin the interview. They will either try to memorize perfect sounding answers, like Larry says, or worse, bring in a cheat sheet that they look at and rattle around the whole time.
Larry is spot on with the last point. You should never, ever give questions to an interviewee. Whilst a trying to get the best out of a subject you also need to keep them slightly on their toes, thinking hard and not over secure. Giving them a general overview is one thing, but giving them questions beforehand is not advisable at all. It will mean they are shocked and possibly annoyed if you throw in a curve ball. Polite curve ball questions often elicit the best response. They will also attempt the answer a few times and you will lose all spontaneity.
Larry’s point about asking the same question but in another manner, is also great advice.
I would also add that early on (and we are talking about recorded interviews) it’s good to fire some questions that you know for sure you won’t be using the answers to. You make the questions appear serious, real and important, whilst knowing you won’t use the answers. All interviewees no matter how good they are, need and deserve some verbal warm ups.
Larry does make a good point on that last point, but don’t discount Michael’s intention: let them feel prepared and involved. I’ll share a few questions or very broad questions in advance. The interviewee will feel prepared (and more relaxed), but they won’t have an opportunity to prepare a “script.”