How To Interview People

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Preparing for an interview

Preparations are the key here every single time. Know who your guest is, know their backstory, do your research so you know exactly where they might go [in the conversation] and where you might take it.

If you have time, especially in a podcast situation, have a conversation with them beforehand. Just cover the areas that you’re going to be going through in the interview and prep them for that. I would hesitate to provide an exact list of questions to guests, which is often asked for – they’ll sometimes say, “Oh, what are you going to ask me, I want to know the questions.” And that might be a stipulation for them coming on your podcast.

But I would try to steer away from that – it leads to quite a sterile interview, because they know what’s coming, and because then you might feel obliged to stick to those questions. Whereas the best interviews are not like that; they’re organic. They flow well because the interviewer is listening to the interviewee and picking up on the things that they’re saying, and rolling with those.

So you know, for anyone who’s new in the game, listen to the best interviewers on the radio – people like Rachel Barton on Radio 5 Live, or Eddie Mair, who used to do BBC and global radio LBC. Some of the best interviewers on LBC radio are well worth listening to, and you can pick up some really good skills from them.

The list of questions is the antithesis of an organic interview. And I would, as a very basic tip that you’ll get taught if you do a course in journalism or media is just: ask open questions. Why, where, what, how, when? So, you know: “Why did you write this book?” Or, “What prompted you to make that move in your career?” 

“How do you feel about this?” is a very popular one at the moment – rather than the closed questions. Especially with children, or guests who aren’t particularly confident on camera. Because if you ask them simply, “Did you like the game?” The answer is gonna be yes. And that’s the end of that.

As an interviewer, you just have to work so much harder. When you get those answers, the fewer questions, the better [because you want the interviewee to have enough space to speak]. Often a short, sharp question is as good [if not better] as a long rambling one.

I come back to Eddie Mair; very often, his follow-up to a first answer from a guest would be “Why?” and he lets it sit out there. And then the interviewee is back on it and they’re working hard – not you. Often you’ll see interviewers rolling out all their knowledge in a question that lasts a fortnight. That’s not what people want to hear. They don’t want to hear that you’ve done your crap research; they just want to hear intelligent questions.

How to maintain control in an interview

If you’re the presenter, you are in control of the interview. You initiate proceedings, you kick things off, you ask the first question, you ask the follow-ups – you’ll be able to steer the guests in the direction you like. So you should always be in control of the interview [in theory].

If it moves away from that, what you do depends on if that’s what you want or not. Sometimes a guest will roll out an anecdote you weren’t expecting, but turns out to be great audio, so you’ll keep it.

And if they’re straying into territory you’re uncomfortable about, or feeling nervous about – for a podcast, this shouldn’t be such a problem, because it’s pre-recorded and then edited. For a live broadcast, it obviously is a problem if they’re going into territory which is offensive to people or could even incite violence, or if they’re making claims which are unsubstantiated.

You need to know your broadcast law, because otherwise we can be libeling people. You’re also on the hook for that if you don’t challenge them on that. To be safe, make a disclaimer that those are not the views of NBC, for example – those are the views of somebody else.

If you suspect you’re going to have somebody controversial come on – let’s say a Holocaust denier – you have to have somebody else on like a historian, someone who knows the facts to balance out that conversation, so you have both sides of it. But you’ve always got the right to cut in your the interview.

Or cut in and take it back somewhere you want if they’re struggling – help them out. Lead them somewhere else that you’d rather go. Remember, you are in control.

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