Like much of television, interviewing looks so easy, but is so difficult in practice.
So why is it so difficult, and how can you learn to interview properly? Twenty years experience on a live programme is one way, but, if you can’t wait, these notes may help.
Sir Robin Day, who was probably the interviewer par excellence, drew up a code of practice for interviewers in (I think) 1961. They have become the guide for all apprentice television interviewers:
- The television interviewer must do his duty as a journalist, probing for facts and opinions.
- He should set his own prejudices aside and put questions which reflect various opinions, disregarding probable accusations of bias.
He should not allow himself to be overawed in the presence of a powerful person.
- He should not compromise the honesty of the interview by omitting awkward topics or by rigging questions in advance.
- He should resist any inclination in those employing him to soften or rig an interview so as to secure a ‘prestige’ appearance, or to please authority; if after making his protests the interviewer feels he cannot honestly accept the arrangements, he should withdraw.
- He should not submit his questions in advance, but it is reasonable to state the main areas of questioning. If he submits specific questions beforehand he is powerless to put any supplementary questions which may be vitally needed to clarify or challenge an answer.
- He should give fair opportunity to answer questions, subject to the time limits imposed by television.
- He should never take advantage of his professional experience to trap or embarrass someone unused to television appearances.
- He should press his questions firmly and persistently, but not tediously, offensively, or merely in order to sound tough.
- He should remember that a television interviewer is not employed as a debater, prosecutor, inquisitor, psychiatrist or third-degree expert, but as a journalist seeking information on behalf of the viewer.
What you should think about before interviewing someone:
The purpose of any interview is to widen your knowledge, or, more precisely, that of your viewer. This is best done if your interviewee is relaxed but not too relaxed. He or she should be, or should appear to be, taking part in a genuine conversation with you. He is not talking to your viewer(s) – he is talking to you.
A One-to-One chat
I said that it should appear to be a genuine conversation, but always go into an interview as prepared as possible. It’s not enough to find out as you go along; unless you’re very very clever, the most important question won’t occur to you until you see the programme go out. If you don’t know anything about the subject, you won’t know what to ask. After your research you should know most, if not all, of the answers.
Where’s it all going?
Make sure that you know where you want to be at the end of the interview. A ‘cosy chat’ is doomed before the first word.
Remember that interviewing is above all the art of listening, so be interested. Don’t pretend to be interested. For the duration of the piece, the man or woman you’re talking to must be the most interesting person you’ve ever talked to. If you don’t think that, and don’t convey it by your whole attitude, then your audience will immediately find the whole thing very boring, and switch off or check to see what’s on the other channels.
Get in there and ask
Have courage. You represent the man in the street, and have the right, indeed often the duty, to ask controversial questions. But remember the laws of libel, and, just as importantly, the laws of good taste.
The W – the Interviewer’s best friend
Make each question short. If you ask a long and rambling question to which the answer might be ‘yes’ or ‘no’, guess what the interviewee will say. The W is a good friend here; almost any question that begins with a W – who, what, where, when, which, why – will be a good simple question. And remember the emergency escape – if you do get the answer ‘yes’, counter with a ‘why’. And don’t forget the silent supplementary. It’s been abused on programmes like ‘Man Alive’, but a silent nod will often get just that little bit more from your guest.
Preparation – the key
Don’t write down your questions, but key words that remind you of the sense of each question. Even better, don’t think of questions at all, but of points that you want to bring out. Then put your key words down on a small card together with the name of the interviewee, and refer to it only if you need to. Sir Robin Day says he does think of the phraseology of the question; I’d advise you not to do so until you’re in the same league and have to watch out for exact legal meanings. And until you can ask a scripted question as if it’s just occurred to you.
Don’t tell your interviewee the precise things you want to ask. By all means agree on areas of discussion (they’ll probably be obvious anyway), but the first take is nearly always the only one you’ll get, and if he’s allowed to sit thinking up an answer it will sound very wrong, like a politician’s campaign speech in the middle of an opera.
There is the famous story of a well-known chap who refused to appear on a programme unless he was told the questions in advance. The producer and interviewer explained that this was not a good thing and that the best way of appearing natural on camera is to BE natural and just talk as normal. The interviewer insisted he must have the questions in advance and as he was needed for the programme the producer relented. The hapless interviewee carefully mugged up his replies, rehearsing them with his wife until he was word-perfect.
Then came the day of the programme; the first part over-ran and there was only five minutes left for the interview, not eight, so the interviewee rightly decided to miss out questions one and two and go straight for three four and five. Result – the answers to one two and three!. “And why did you pick the riverside site for the new block?” – “Well aluminium is a new material but pound for pound it’s just as strong as steel”!!!
That’s an extreme example, but don’t necessarily assume that the interview will proceed as you imagined during your researches. Be prepared to steer your guest back onto the right lines if he wanders or starts spouting technical jargon. But if he goes onto what you thought was point number four when you expected three, does it really matter? You can come back to three later.
You’ve done your homework – now LISTEN
Prepare, then listen, listen, listen. Or you can go badly wrong. It doesn’t often happen, but occasionally a television feast is provided by an interviewer asking a question which has just been answered. Marvellously bad.
I’ll say it again:
If your guest sees you reading your next question or watching the floor manager, he will become so distracted he might well shut up entirely. One card with one word notes should be enough.
Be prepared for the unexpected. People are odd. Interviewees do refuse to talk if they sense that the interviewer is not paying attention. They get up and do a little dance. They suddenly produce a diary and quote facts at you. Interviewers have been assaulted by fist, water pistol and worse. Guests walk out in the middle of the proceedings.
The American shot
It’s as well to remember that you’re the professional and the poor chap who’s never seen a television camera before is a bit bewildered by all the technology. People are combing his hair and advising him to sit back and do up his jacket and others are sticking microphones behind his tie…. it’s all a bit overwhelming.
Please spend as much time as possible getting to know the chap and telling him what all this technology is about. If possible, try to get him to ignore it. Don’t talk about the subject of the interview (except in very general terms); chat about the heat/air-conditioning in the studio, traffic, dogs, taxes – almost anything at all.
If you feel the interviewee is extremely nervous it might not be a bad idea to do an ‘American shot’. I’m not sure where the term comes from, but it basically involves going through all the rigmarole of switching on lights, pretending (but only pretending) to run the camera, boarding it, then beginning a soft version of the interview. Then when you feel your guest has relaxed, give a secret signal to the director and/or crew and start the thing in earnest. By the way, if you’re on film, remember to board it at the end.
Don’t wear black – you’ll disappear
These points apply, of course to both interviewer and guest. Or just to you if you want to have an advantage! Don’t wear patterned or fussy clothes on television. Small patterns can cause a weird effect called ‘strobing’, and fussy clothes can make a woman look like a Victorian lamp shade. Don’t wear black or white either – plain muted colours are best.
Don’t get too comfortable
Whether in the studio or on location, always sit forward rather than lean back. Stick your bottom right back into the corner of the chair. If you want to have an advantage over the other chap, don’t remind him of this – he might well slouch and appear not to be concentrating. Do up your jacket if you’re wearing one, and find somewhere for your hands.
Finally , it can never be emphasised too often that:
The key to the art of interviewing is to LISTEN