Interviews Galore


Ninety five percent of broadcast interviews are location pieces featuring one interviewer and one interviewee. The interview is recorded, and edited down to size later. In an extreme case you may speak for twenty minutes and find that a twelve second piece is used for the news. But there are many variations. Here are points to look out for on some of the more common variations.

Debates and Discussions

These are usually about an issue, not about something you've done. Maybe one of the many thousand discussions on the pros and cons of abortion, for instance.
They're largely popular because of the adversarial views of the panel. Viewers like colour, contrast and conflict.

But please remember that the conflict should be about the subject - never the messenger.

Discussions are usually studio based, and often in real time, not recorded.

Prepare three meaningful points as usual, plus examples to back them up.

You'll probably be asked for a short introductory piece to explain your stance. Put a lot of thinking into making it short and sweet.

Watch and listen carefully for time cues and try to get the last word. You might see the floor manager holding up two fingers. He's not being rude - he's telling the interviewer there are two minutes left on the discussion. Or the interviewer might say something like, "Well we're nearly out of time . . ." Right. Get in there with your best point. Even if it's a repeat. But if it is a repeat, illustrate it with a different story.

The other chap may be talking, but the camera might be looking at you. Indeed you can cause it to look at you - almost any movement or gesture will put you on air.
So use the camera. How good an actor are you? You can sway the viewer very much with your body language. Sit up and listen to your opponent(s). But a pitying smile or slight shake of the head, " Oh really, you can't expect anybody in his right mind to think that way" can win hands down for your side. Don't overdo it but, used wisely, this is a very powerful weapon.


The Ambush Interview!

I hope you won't encounter anything like this. It could mean you're really hot news on account of starring in the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but it could equally mean you're about to star in court.

It generally involves twenty journalists, six camera crews and a couple of satellite vans waiting for you when you step out of your office building, home or courtroom.

The key - take control.

They're there to see and hear you. Don't retreat - come slightly forward and welcome the pack. Don't let them back you against a wall or doorway.

Anchor yourself firmly on the spot or you'll tend to sway. Or worse, shift sideways. Planting your feet a shoulder's width apart will stop that. And give your hands something to do - carrying a file is good. Or clasp them behind your back - and try not to think of Phil the Greek.

Hold up your hands or call, "Ladies, gentlemen, thank you". They'll settle down. You may well make an announcement about the event.

Don't, whatever you do, say "No comment". That sort of thing is reserved only for the guilty. It's a good idea, though, to get away fairly quickly. This sort of thing tends to happen during emergencies and other pressurised situations and you won't have time to prepare much.

Announce that you can spare just two minutes. Or that you can take three questions. And give a reason. If it's a real emergency you might well be on your way to a hospital to visit the injured workers. Or you might be needed in court. Or something as simple as you can see your car just arrived and it's waiting on a double yellow line. A bit thin, but better than nothing. Oh, and make sure that any excuse you give is genuine!

Pick a question. You'll probably get quite a few thrown at you. Answer the one you prefer. I've even seen people pretend to hear a non-existent question!

If there's a lot of hubbub, try to avoid being distracted. If you get halfway through an answer, falter, then start another answer, then another the viewer will see you as indecisive. Remember that most location microphones are very directional. Even if you can hardly hear yourself speak, the microphone can. So once you've launched on an answer, finish it.

Remember that there are six cameras all around you trying to catch a glimpse. You may decide to answer a question from over on your left, but the other crews want that answer as well. Share by looking at each of the reporters in turn (or as many as you can) for just a few seconds. Then back to the questioner, trying to arrive as you come to the end of the answer.

Answer as many questions as you've said you would. Or give as much time as you promised. Then thank everyone firmly and leave. And don't look back!

Remote Interviews

This is a variation on the one interviewer - one interviewee, but, typically the two people are in different cities if not different countries. Usually live, but not always.

Remote studio interviews are very difficult. You're stuck in a hot little box of a room with maybe one camera operator who has no interest in you or your image. You can't see the interviewer or even hear him very clearly.

Try your best to imagine he's there in the room with you. Difficult, but when it works it's brilliant.

The lack of a second person makes this quite difficult. There will usually be someone in the studio with you, but he or she will probably be a technician and more concerned with getting your lighting right than settling your nerves.

You'll probably hear the questions through a deaf-aid earpiece that's been thrust in your ear. Quite disconcerting, but try to think of it as a telephone call with an acquaintance.

The general arrangement seems to be to ask the interviewee to look at a camera. This is seventeen and a quarter times more difficult than staring at the interviewee. At least he nodded encouragingly from time to time - the glass lens just glares at you emotionless and harsh!

Some studio directors ask the interviewee to look not at the camera, but at a point a little to the left or right of the lens. If that happens to you, ask for some sort of aid to help you focus - a photograph of the interviewer would be ideal, but even a studio clock is better than nothing. An off-air monitor may be worse than nothing - you'll be looking straight at yourself, but that self on screen will be looking slightly sideways. Most distracting.

Because of the limitations of the deaf-aid communications, you may not know exactly when transmission begins and ends. Be ready with your interesting face (and a smile if it's a light-hearted interview) just in case. And don't, whatever you do, turn away or start disconnecting your microphone until you're given the all clear. You may think you're off air, but the remote studio may still have your picture in a window behind the link man while he talks about the launch date of your book or whatever.

Chat Shows

Most people who are invited onto chat shows have quit a bit of experience of basic interviews, so I'll not worry too much about that now.

But you might meet a sort of variation on a chat show; maybe you're one of three people who cycled up Mount Everest together - so you'll be interviewed together.

The atmosphere is generally much more relaxed than a straight one interviewer one guest situation, but there are a couple of points to watch:

If it's a live studio piece, try to follow the interviewer's lead - if he addresses a question to one of you, let that person answer. This is especially important in small studios where the number of cameras is limited. But be aware that your picture may be on screen when one of the others is talking. Look interested.

Remember to tell stories. Don't 'label'. Just the mention of the snowmobile running out of fuel will bring back vivid memories for you. But the viewer needs you to spell out what happened and what you felt.

If the interview is recorded on location, please avoid talking over another person's answer. It's difficult sometimes not to do so, but it makes editing an enormous problem.

And if it's a recorded piece, the director will almost certainly ask you to do a bit of acting to help him edit. You'll be asked to listen to Don on your left (even though he isn't talking now), then to the interviewer, then back to Don, then nod and look to Arthur on your right. Etc. Bear with it - it's all to help you and your group of cyclists look good. But it does feel strange.

That's covered the main kinds of interview. There are all sorts of variations - many cookery programmes are illustrated interviews, for instance - but you may not be doing one of those until next week!

Press Conferences

First, are you sure you need a press conference? Would a news release be enough on its own? If you can write an effective release you only need a press conference if you anticipate two way communication between you and the reporters.

Of course many press conferences are held for other reasons: late breaking news (the Gulf war briefings, for example); product launches (reporters actually get to drive the cars or use the digital cameras) and 'getting to know you' sessions (often misguided - are you expecting people to be impressed by you or by the new piece of software?).

Sometimes a press conference can have a negative effect. A little while ago, in Iowa, journalists were invited to a briefing about a scheme to enable handicapped people to work in electronics assembly plants. Many reporters turned up, but the coverage in the newspapers and on air was largely non-existent. The longest piece was by a reporter for a local newspaper:

I couldn't understand why I was there. I got a press release about an innovative new programme to train the handicapped in electronics assembly skills. Even though the press conference announcement wasn't very clear, I went along because I thought it sounded like a good story. When I got there I wasn't sure exactly what the programme was about. When I left I still didn't know!

Aside from a few cliches and generalisations they didn't tell us anything about the programme. They could have told us about placement of handicapped workers on actual jobs, and there are probably some interesting things about how assembly line equipment is adapted for handicapped workers. But they didn't offer this information, and were vague when I asked about these areas.

Not only that, they seemed confused about whether they were presenting this new programme or all of their programmes.

I only saw two or three people participating in the programme, but I saw fifty people running it. And I didn't get to see the trainees working. None of them seemed handicapped. Their disabilities might not have been apparent, but it was never made clear whether these were disabled people or ordinary workers.

I couldn't tell if the people running the scheme were inept or if they had something to hide. I had suspicions of both. There were so many staff people there it was like they were trying to overwhelm us; to keep us away from something.

Well that was hardly good publicity. They may have been very well-intentioned people. But next time any of those reporters gets an invitation to a press conference by the same PR company, you can guess the turnout - zero.

If your material isn't really hard news, consider getting in touch with a few carefully selected reporters and developing stories directly with them. This is particularly important if you're introducing a complicated new product. Computer journalists writing about software hardly ever go to press conferences; they insist on a one-to-one demonstration so they can get to know the thing in depth. On other kinds of story, many organisations will ask for an exclusive. And if you can't give them that, they'll forget about your wonderful idea. Of course, a television magazine won't care about newspaper coverage and vice versa - but it's best to keep them informed.

So be sure you need to meet the boys and girls of the media face to face.

That's nearly the end of the section on interviews. To see some of the advice here put into practice, take a look at a short clip from an interview in action.