Looking for some interview tips? At Tales Untold Media, we have decades of experience in radio and podcast production, from live call-in shows to prerecorded one-on-one interviews, and just about everything in between.
Nothing sends listeners running for the hills more than an interview show hosted by a bad interviewer (unless, of course, you’re this guy or this guy). The pros you’ve watched or listened to over the years can make it sound like an easy-going conversation always flows right into an unexpected revelation or emotional realization. All you need is time to get there.
But the truth is, interviewers like Charlie Rose and Terry Gross (along with their production staffs) put tons of effort into what may seem like an off-the-cuff conversation.
If you’re just getting started with your podcast or looking to improve your skills, here’s a short list of interview tips we think are indispensable.
1. Know the answers to your questions
(or at least where the answers will take you).
This is a fancy way of saying “be prepared.” Depending on the accessibility of your guest, do what’s called a preinterview beforehand. A preinterview is exactly what it sounds like. You don’t want to ask the exact same questions verbatim as you will in your recorded interview, but you do want to follow the same general line of questioning that you think you’ll want to ask when tape is rolling. The purpose is to probe your guest to figure out where the best nuggets are, based on the focus of your show and what you’re hoping to get out of the interview.
By phone is best, because you can get a sense for how the interviewee responds to certain lines of questioning. (Do they light up when you ask about a previous project of theirs? Do they shut down when you ask about what they’re up to right now?) Even if you can only do it by email, you might get an unexpected answer that could redirect your entire line of questioning. Keep that knowledge in your back pocket for your real interview, so you don’t need to spend 60 minutes asking questions before you finally get to something you find engaging.
2. Warm up your guest.
When have you ever sat down with somebody you don’t know, and immediately divulged something deeply personal or highly insightful? (For the sake of those around you, we’re hoping seldom.) Now, imagine there’s a microphone in front of your face and you know that whatever you say will live online for all the world to hear…
The point is, no matter whether your show is about business or personal stories, or anything in between, you’re not going to get anything good out of the interview until your interviewee a) is relaxed, b) trusts you and c) forgets about the microphone.
In all of the interviews we have directed and edited over the years, we can’t think of a single case in which we kept the beginning of the conversation. On average, we probably cut the first 10 minutes or so out of every interview. That may seem like a lot, but your final interview audio must start out with something that immediately grabs the listener.
So don’t start out by jumping right in with your hard-hitting questions. Chat about the weather. Ask about their kids. Share a funny story about yourself. If the interview is not live and will be edited before release, explain that to them and let them know that at any time, they can choose to stop and reword their response. Sometimes, even just knowing that they don’t have to nail everything on the first take will cause people to relax and be more authentic.
Even if your guest is accustomed to speaking into a microphone, use the warm-up to give them a sense of your style–formal, conversational, lighthearted, etc.–and they’ll unconsciously adapt to meet you there.
3. Never forget your listeners.
This part can be tough for people just learning how to be good interviewers, and it’s arguably the most important point in this list of interview tips.
A good interviewer is totally engaged with their guest, so that the listener feels they’re eavesdropping on a conversation, not listening to someone rattle off a list of questions for someone else to answer.
But at the same time, a good interviewer is also able to have a part of their consciousness detached from being a part of the conversation, and instead follows along as a listener who can tell the host what to do. Is this topic area boring as a listener? Change course. Are you and the interviewee repeating yourselves? Move on. Is the conversation getting tired? Wrap it up.
There’s also the technical side of thinking like a listener, where you’ll start to make notes in your head about where the obvious editing points are (cut this part, move this section before the last question, trim that response, etc.), but that will come naturally with experience. For now, focus on keeping the listeners’ perspective in mind.
4. Don’t forget to steer.
You are the host. It’s your show. The steering wheel is in your hands. Use it.
Some guests will be hesitant and look to you to guide the conversation. Others will be aggressive in trying to communicate a certain agenda and will want to focus on something that doesn’t serve your show.
The key to subtly steering a conversation where you want it to go is to:
- Ask open-ended questions
Don’t ask questions with simple yes/no answers. Give the guest plenty of room for response while remaining focused on an area that you know will serve your show well.
- Prioritize your questions
Go into your interview with the assumption that you’re only going to get to about 80% of your questions before you run out of time or the guest starts to lose energy and shut down. Have your questions prioritized accordingly. On your list of questions, clearly mark those that you absolutely need to make sure the guest responds to, and make sure you get to those.
- Know when to interrupt
Be aware of when and how often you do interrupt, because it can be annoying to the listeners when a host won’t let their guest complete their thought. But if the guest is headed in a direction you don’t want to go, don’t be afraid to cut them off. Sometimes it’s better to save everyone’s energy by keeping the interview focused, rather than letting your guest ramble on about something that you know you’re going to cut out of the final audio.
And don’t be afraid to try the same question multiple times, until you’re satisfied with the response. You don’t literally need to repeat the question verbatim, but just keep trying different ways in. Sometimes it takes a few tries until the guest understands what you’re after. And if you’re talking with someone who is used to being interviewed, sometimes it takes a few tries before they drop their canned answer and give you an authentic response.
Remember: if you’re editing your audio, your audience won’t be subjected to the repetition or all the interruptions.
5. Don’t be afraid to take a left turn.
Even though you’re the one driving, it’s not always bad to completely change course. Even if you’ve done an extensive preinterview, gone through your warm-up and gotten to the questions you’re really interested in, it can occasionally happen that you and your guest will stumble upon something engaging that is totally unexpected.
Go with it. Your duty is to serve your listeners, not your list of questions. And again, if it doesn’t work out, you can always cut it.
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