The word “interview” has become a dirty word. Long form interviews became more conversational. Marc Marron once met a Hollywood star and they began by talking about his own sick cat. Surely there was a movie to promote in there somewhere? But we didn’t mind the off-topic questions because it was his enthusiasm for the guest and the general chat which kept us listening.
These informal conversations have replaced interviews. Traditionally interviews are something we prepare for, whether they are to promote a new record or get a job driving a bus. Interviews are like chats we have had a hundred times before, but in a performative way. Like any performance, you can practice doing an interview, especially if you are the one asking the questions. So, here are some tips on how to make a great interview.
When conducting radio interviews, there is a “research call” beforehand. This is when a researcher will call the guest in advance and ask questions that the interviewer might ask during the interview itself. Questions they’ll expect, like “so tell us about your new show,” and ones that they definitely won’t like, such as “have you anything else interesting going on?”, “what is it that you do, exactly?” Then there’s the question guaranteed to bore them to tears: “and has anything mad ever happened to you?” Based on that call, the researcher will decide what is interesting about their guest and will send a brief to the interviewer with suggested questions. When the interview happens, you might trot out a tighter version of that one story that made the researcher laugh.
Unfortunately, not everyone conducting an interview might have the time or resources to access these research calls, but there are other things you can do to make your interview stand out from the rest.
Podcasting gives us the long form interview, there is no time limit, they don’t have to hit the news on the hour and as it turns out we actually are as interested in what Janelle Monae thinks of Mark Marron’s cats as we are in her inspiration for her new album. The lack of resources and indeed professionalism in podcast interviews has brought us full circle to the most important tool in interviewing. You have to listen and react to the conversation that is actually happening.
We are all familiar with the jaded style of interviewing where the host powers on through to the next question, regardless of the answer to the one that preceded it:
“Do you like Ireland?” And if the guest were to answer “No I’m part of a terrorist plan to nuke it” the next question would still be; “I believe you can do an Irish accent…can we hear it, we’d all love to hear it wouldn’t we?”.
You are worthy
If a celebrity guest is on your podcast or show, you need to believe you are worthy of their time. If you are too astonished that you are speaking with such a high-profile guest, they will also begin to wonder how they ended up there. In other words, don’t make the mistake of gushing over the guest and make sure you’re asking relevant questions.
A couple of years ago when Richard Gere was in Dublin to promote the movie Time Out of Mind. He appeared on The Late Late Show and was asked almost exclusively about Pretty Woman, a film he had made 26 years previously. As expected, he gave the same answers he had been giving for 26 years. Nothing new was learned and once that was over with, he sat for another baffling ten minutes while members of the audience sang a karaoke version of the theme song from An Officer and A Gentleman, a film he had made 8 years before Pretty Woman. Nobody knew why.
Then, the host of the show was kind enough to leave his desk and sit beside Gere affording the nation a single shot of him looking delighted that Gere was there and Richard Gere himself looking deeply bewildered by what was going on around him.
It sounds simple but you can’t let yourself become too dazzled, otherwise your interview becomes less like a conversation and more like an awkwardly long fan interaction that the guest and audience has to sit through.
Know your guest
The best interviews leave their mark. If you can break the cycle of stock questions and answers, you will cut through to the person pretty quickly. The interview will sound more organic and far more interesting.
Watch your time
Keep an eye on the time. While this is less important for a podcast, it is quite important for your guest. If you are approaching the one hour mark, it is likely your guest is going to flag and want to go. You should know what the key areas you want to talk about are and move the interview on. Apart from valuing the guest’s time, it makes for a dull episode if the interview feels like it is lacking in structure.
Offer an angle and rejection is ok
While it is a bad move to railroad your guest with your take on something they have done, it is ok to suggest or offer an angle. This allows you to guide the interview in a certain direction. Try phrasing your question like this: “When you did X was that because of Y?” In doing so it is perfectly reasonable to expect that the answer will be “no,” but it’s important to remember that disagreement or being wrong as an interviewer is ok. Being wrong allows the interviewee to explain why and gives them the opportunity to elaborate on their answer. Their correction can reveal a lot about themselves.
Fake it ’til you make it
The interviewer needs to be interested in their guest or be able to fake it very well. Even if the guest is a place holder or a last minute replacement, both the audience and the guest should feel that the interviewer is genuinely interested and wants to have a conversation with them.
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