How To Do a Great, Professional Interview — Online or In Person
The pandemic has seen so many things move online — classes, work meetings, schooling — suddenly we all know “how to Zoom” and for many, it’s literally been a sanity saver. One of the things that’s moved online as well is the literary festival, meaning all over the world, we all get to attend any festival we want!
It’s been wonderful. Some of the time. But a lot of the time, I’ve given up and switched off. Sometimes I don’t even make it halfway through the session. Am I easily bored? No. The problem for me is I have spent more than twelve years doing radio and in-person interviews, mostly with writers, and I get really impatient with interviews that are badly done. Sorry, but being a writer yourself doesn’t actually qualify you to be a good interviewer! It’s a skill and you have to work at it.
What interviewers do wrong
We have the opportunity to hear from famous writers of all genres and forms, from all over the world. But here are the most annoying and amateurish things I see interviewers doing:
· Spending ten minutes of a session introducing people. Not always the interviewer’s fault (the bio stuff should be in the session description and people are capable of Googling) but intros should be minimal.
· Spending the first 10–15 minutes talking about yourself and your own ideas.
· Asking stupid questions. Trying to ask clever questions that fail miserably (cue the interviewee’s puzzled expression).
· Sticking so closely to your own list of questions that you fail to pick up on things the interviewee says that are really interesting and should be followed up.
· Bringing the topics of the session back to yourself all the time.
· Letting the interviewee talk on and on and on without reining them in.
· Sessions called “conversations” where the participants clearly haven’t talked before and spend the time either trying to make friends with each other, or prove they’re already friends with in-jokes.
The list goes on — and yes, I am curmudgeonly about this because a great session relies very heavily on the interviewer being good at their job. Why do you think Michael Parkinson’s show lasted so long? Or any TV show where the host is a good interviewer? (I’m not counting the ones where it’s just about getting laughs.)
Guidelines for great interviews
So I have some guidelines to suggest, ones I have learned from doing more than 600 interviews. The same guidelines apply to any interview you’re doing, by the way, whether you’re talking to someone to research your book, or interviewing for an article, or for your podcast (don’t get me started on bad podcast interviews).
· Do the research on your subject/interviewee. Do lots of research. About their books, their accomplishments, their track record of expertise, their other publications, their life story, their writing career. Just as importantly, read what other people have written about them! You will very soon see how often the subject is asked the same kind of questions, over and over.
I still remember on my radio show interviewing Terry McMillan, the author of Waiting to Exhale. She was bored and impatient. I figured at that point (since the book had been a bestseller for many months) she would have done dozens of interviews. As soon as I started asking her questions she clearly hadn’t been asked much, or at all, she became interested and chatty and we had a great interview.
It’s your job as interviewer to get the best out of your subject that you can — not for you, for your audience. You can only do that by knowing who they are, what their work is and what it’s about.
· The same goes for an interview for research. Do your own research first, know all the basics that anyone can find online, and use the interview time to ask the more difficult, deeper questions that only your subject can answer. Don’t waste their time expecting them to educate you on the basics. Trust me, they’ll know and they won’t be happy. Their time is precious.
· Really think about what questions you will ask. Having done my research, I always start from the point of “What is it that I would really love to know?” I’m a writer and I love to hear other writers talking about process, ideas and problems they’ve solved. But those topics are too vague and generic.
Drill down and use your research to ask more interesting questions. For example, your research might not reveal whether the writer writes first drafts by hand or on the computer (and it’s something I know lots of people are keen to hear about, because they ask me). But instead of just asking that question, make it a quick question which usually gets a quick answer, and then ask something like, “What effect does that have on your writing?”
· Try to ask open-ended questions. Questions that will elicit a Yes/No answer are awkward — they stop the flow of the interview, or the interviewee will feel obliged to try and fill their answer out more, which leads to fluff. An open-ended question gives the subject the opportunity to talk. That’s what they’re there for. For every question on your list, check that it’s open-ended and could also suggest anecdotes or examples. Yes, this is a skill to learn. Indeed, I’d say it’s THE skill. And so many interviewers have no idea how to do it.
· If you are interviewing to gain knowledge, know exactly what it is you want to find out. If you’re researching for your crime novel, for example, it can be fascinating to hear “war stories” from police officers, but if what you really want is precise information on police procedure in certain situations, you’re going to go home with very little, and then have to embarrass yourself by asking for another interview.
· If you are interviewing for an article, ask permission to record it. As soon as you say you want to do it for accuracy, your subject should be OK with that. Direct quotes from people are what make articles interesting and unique, but you do need to get them exactly right. Don’t change words to get a better quote.
It’s not usual for your subject to have approval over your article, by the way. It can lead to all sorts of issues later on. But it is your professional responsibility to be exact and honest, and recording the interview makes this straightforward and easy. Plus good questions, well researched, help to earn your subject’s trust.
· Listen to your interviewee’s answers! I see people so focused on the questions they’ve prepared that they don’t even hear when the person they’re interviewing says something amazing or fascinating that needs more discussion and expansion. They just charge on to the next question. It’s even more ridiculous when the next question is about something the subject already just said. That’s when you hear, “Well, as I was just saying…”
· Put your ego away. Please. Even when the interview is labelled a “conversation”, usually it’s not. It’s just a friendly label for an interview. The audience is there to listen to Writer X or Celebrity Y or Knowledgeable Person Z. Not you. They don’t want to hear your theories or thoughts, unless you are famous, too, and you keep it short. They’re there to listen to the subject. Truly, they are. Put your ego away. And especially put it away if you are a male interviewing a female. Otherwise your ego sticks out like the proverbial…
My rule of thumb is that your questions and what you say (because in a good interview you might find the subject asking you something!) should be 10% or less of the session time. If you’re asking questions that are longer than your subject’s answers, you aren’t doing it right. In many bad interviews like this, what the interviewer is actually doing is showing off.
· Conversely, understand you may have to rein in the interviewee. It’s a judgement call on your part, and can be tricky. One of the best interviews I’ve done, with the late John Clarke, was mostly about me shutting up and letting him tell wonderful stories. That’s what he was like, and that’s what the audience loved.
But sometimes people get on a roll and don’t know how to stop (or don’t really want to) and are being boring or didactic or meandering, and you will have to interrupt nicely and get them back on track. One way is to wait for the next time they take a breath, jump in and say, “That’s really interesting. Now, I want to ask you about…” Remember your audience, and how many of them are likely to be thinking, For goodness sake, move it along!
· Think about how to end the interview before you start. Suddenly saying, “Time’s up. Thanks for talking to us” is a bit rude. You can gently say, “We’re getting close to our time, but let’s have one last question.” And have your “thank you” written out so you can say it clearly and genuinely instead of blathering on for another 2–3 minutes. Thank the audience for listening, too. If you have sponsors to thank at the end (or the beginning), have that clearly and concisely written down so you can then read it clearly and concisely.
Finally, go and watch interviews on YouTube or websites. Watch the famous interviewers, like Parkinson and David Frost, the chat show hosts, and the festival sessions in your area of interest. Watch critically. Rewind. Think about which questions work best, which get the best answers, and how the interviewer responds next. Learn from the best, and then apply. Everyone will benefit, but your audience most of all.