How To… conduct an interview
It might sound easy; just jabber away with some questions and let the interviewee talk but in fact there’s a bit of a knack to a decent filmed interview. Unfortunately, it’s a knack that far too many people producing video for the Internet just don’t seem to have.
From interrupting their guests, to closed questions, and from vocalised encouragement to unprepared endings, there are many pitfalls that will turn what should be a straightforward process into a mishmash that you can only hope the video editor will manage to rescue later on!
In this guide then, are some tips for conducting an interview. This is not an absolute, definitive guide because that would take an entire book. You may well disagree with some of the advice given here as well. That’s fine; art is inherently subjective,and broadcasting is nothing if not an art form. What these tips should provide is a solid basis on which to build.
Be advised also that this is not a technical guide to filming the interview. That will come later. These are tips for the interviewer, to help them bring out the best in their guest and in the recording.
Here then are Ten Top Tips for Interviews:-
Absolutely 100% never, ever, give the interviewee any questions beforehand. Just chat over the general topics you’re going to cover with them. If they don’t know enough about their subject to be confident to answer specific questions once the camera is rolling, then they’re probably not the right guest for the shoot.
The interviewee may protest that they can’t or won’t do an interview if they don’t know exactly what you’re going to ask. Don’t give in. If you give a guest a list of questions, a) they will prepare in advance and try to memorise exact answers which they will subsequently fail to remember and get flustered and panicky, leading to an overlong and tense recording which is a nightmare to edit; b) they will be unable to cope if you ask any supplementary questions based on their answers, since “it wasn’t on the list”, leading to a dull and uninteractive interview; c) you will be required to work off the same list, about which see point 2.
Contrary to popular advice, don’t bring a list of questions to refer to during the shoot. Really, don’t. If specific facts and figures are relevant to the interview then by all means have that sheet ready for when the associated question crops up – there is no shame in not having memorised statistics and detail – but don’t have the questions themselves.
For one thing, looking down at your list while the guest is replying is extremely rude since it shows you’re not listening; for another, looking at the list at all suggests you have no real interest in or knowledge about what they’re saying but are blindly following a plan and this too is rather rude; and thirdly, a list tends to stop you from actively questioning the guest about what they’re saying, or from deviating from the list if the mood is right.
You are interested in what they’re saying, right…? (you should be, that’s why you’re talking to them!) so you should be able to use your brain to ask intelligent questions about the subject matter (see point 1) and respond to their answers with further questions. If you can’t do this, you shouldn’t be an interviewer so get someone else to do it.
Assuming you’re pre-recording, do reassure the interviewee beforehand that it’s not live and that they can take any answer again if they want to stop or cough, or simply fluff an answer. Remember, many interviewees haven’t done much, if any, television before. They are often frightened of the camera, microphone, lights, you, and the mere prospect of what they say being recorded for all time and then broadcast to an unknown audience.
You must reassure them (unless this truly is not the case), that you’re not out to do a hatchet job on them and their reputation but that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say and that it’s not your intention to make them look stupid. Remind them that a foolish-looking interviewee does your shoot no favours either. This should calm them down. Essentially, interviewees need verbal hugs before you get going.
Point three does not, of course, apply to combative interviews where the guest is being grilled due to some alleged cock-up on their part (such as politicians and other people in authority). If they have any sense at all, they should already know what’s going to be thrown their way, they should have been fully briefed by their media experts, and you should absolutely go all in with blunt questioning and take no nonsense for an answer, repeating the question if neccessary, and repeating it again in a different way if you need to. The kind of people put up for this kind of interview do not need verbal hugs and reassurance.
Don’t interrupt the guest unless they really are rambling on incoherently and trying to pack everything they know into one answer (this often occurs with novice interviewees who assume they’re supposed to deliver a monologue rather than have a two-way dialogue with you). As part of your pre-interview chit-chat, let them know that you will be asking them questions and inform them that the idea is to create a filmed conversation not for them to do a brain dump to camera.
Don’t agree with the guests out loud as it makes editing a nightmare when your “yes”, “uh-huh”, “I see”, “right” and so on are all over the sound recording. Just nod enthusiastically and keep quiet, especially if your cameraperson has also put a microphone on you as well as the interviewee. Whilst many interviewers seem to think they’re the star, in reality you’re there to hear from the guest, so let them talk and you do the listening on the viewer’s behalf.
Smile! Be relaxed. Give plenty of eye contact during the interview and make sure your body language is open too. If you’re tense and stiff, so will the guest be and that won’t make for a flowing conversation. It’s not just the verbal cues you give that will help to generate a good response, your manner both before and during the interview count too. And if you ever want to speak to them again, your manner afterwards is also vital. Thank them for their time and their patience (filming is never a quick process if you’re doing it properly). Give them a business card or other means to get in touch with you and tell them where and when they can see the finished broadcast.
Don’t ask closed questions unless you really mean to. Anything where the guest can give a one-word answer to your query is likely to make a bad soundbite for your finished piece. Short answers often throw interviewers off guard as well, since they expect a nice long answer and get one word, prompting them to need another question sharpish. Make sure your questions are of the “how” and “why” type so the guest has to provide an explanation.
On the other hand, don’t ask open questions that are so wide the guest doesn’t know where to start. The worst is “Tell me about XXX”. It’s not really a question, it’s an invitation to them to waffle without purpose and part of your job as an interviewer is to make sure this doesn’t happen. It’ll be dull for the viewer and a disaster to edit. Instead, steer the response by asking open questions (those they can’t answer with just a handful of words) that have a direction. For example, “Why have you developed this XXX?”; “what sort of uses do you expect the XXX to put put to?” and so on.
Do plan precisely how you’re going to start and end the interview. This is especially important in a live broadcast but also if you plan on transmitting the interview as a standalone item (rather than editing clips from it into a voiced package like a news report, for example). Many a decent piece is ruined by the interviewer not quite knowing how to begin or how to sum up and finish, often instead just offering some vague or nauseating pleasantry and a sickly smile to the guest, the camera (or sometimes, both).
Tip 11 – Bonus tip!
This picks up from the previous point. Whatever you do, don’t thank the guest for joining you as part of the recording, nor pause and expect them to thank you back. The viewer knows perfectly well that you’ve both agreed to do the interview in advance, and that you haven’t just met as the camera started rolling! Such staged pleasantries are totally insincere and merely fritter away the time that you have for the interview itself.
As presenter – which is what you are – just introduce what you’re about to talk about – direct to the camera – then introduce the guest so we know who they are (eg “and here with me is Joe Bloggs who designed the Thingummyjig”). Then, keep looking at the guest and get into the first question. At the end, just give the briefest “Joe, thank you” then turn to camera and sign off with your pre-planned outro rather than have some awkward schmooze-fest with the guest.
That’s it for this article. You may also like to read our 22-step guide to filming the interview: https://tubeshooter.co.uk/2014/05/25/how-to-film-an-interview-in-22-easy-steps/