January 20, 2013

How to do an interview

Over the past two weeks I sat down for beverages/nosh with three titans of Winnipeg interviews: Joff Schmidt (CBC Manitoba theatre reviewer and associate producer for Definitely Not The Opera), Joanne Kelly (CTV and Shaw TV anchor, Journalism instructor at Red River College) and Drew Kozub (Breakfast Television). I sought these gurus out, climbing the proverbial mountain (actually, just sending emails) because while I've cottoned on to the basics of interviewing (ask question, record answer), it is an art I'd like to get better at.

A few hours of conversation amounted to a masterclass in interviewing. I'm struggling to absorb the wisdom imparted and work it into my radio show Heartbeat. It'll take some time to reflexively adopt their tips, of course. But I'd like to think I've taken some big steps forward lately, versus my usual shuffle.

And what tips did they have? Well, because I like you, here's a few pointers from the pros...

Joff Schmidt

  • Ask the question you most want answered first. Too often interviewers ask a few soft question before getting into the actual meat of the conversation. Do your audience a favour by grabbing them with the most interesting lead question possible. Less filler, more killer.
  • If you give your interview an intro, don't lean too heavily on stats. (She won this award, he's been published in all these books, etc.) Choose only the most important accomplishments and use the rest of your time to tell their life story - what matters to them, what messed them up, what they want.
  • "What did you take away from that situation," is a cheap question. And the answers it gets are usually golden. Use it.
Joanne Kelly
  • Get your guest to tell stories from their lives. Don't ask broad questions or wander into esoteric fields of pontificating boredom. Ask your interview to tell a story. Then use that story as a springboard to explore who your guest is. ("So that incident is when you learned to never lie..." "And that's why you followed your father's footsteps..."). Imagine starting on a tight focus with intimate detail (the story) then drawing back to a wide focus (the subject's life and world).
  • Pre-interview your guests during the five minutes of microphone checks, lighting adjustment or walking into the studio. Those brief moments are your chance to find golden stories to fill your interview.
  • Use physical cues when interrupt people. It's a great way to show you're engaged while nudging your guest to wrap up their thought.
  • Bring the audience listening/watching at home into the conversation by talking about them ("People at home can appreciate how awkward that must have been." "I know that those listening want to know - because I want to know - how..."). Make the interview a three-way conversation.
Drew Kozub
  • Don't talk about yourself. People don't care about what you think - they care about your guest (hopefully) or how your guest's story impacts their lives.
  • Cover what you can in the time you have. If you're doing a brief hit, you can't do a ten minute interview; you have 90 seconds before you throw it back to weather. Keep your eye on the clock.
  • Make sure your guest knows about the clock too. During your pre-interview ask, "What's the most important message you need to get across?" Focus on that.

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