In my career as a broadcaster I have interviewed hundreds of people, so I wanted to share what I have learned. These are my 4 ways to be a more confident interviewer:
- Know Only Enough To Be Curious
- Only Interview the Person Breathing In-front of You
- Share Some Of You
- Listen. Really listen.
They’re based on my own experiences alone: from interviewing film stars to council officials, social leaders to pop stars, politicians to puppets. (One puppet’s “master” made me turn away and face the wall before the stuffed celeb would make his presence known. Boom Boom!)
I hope you enjoy and please, if you have tips or stories, let me know here. I’d love to hear from you.
4 Ways To Be A More Confident Interviewer: Tip 1 – Know Only Enough To Be Curious
The English poet Alexander Pope once wrote:
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
(As it happens he actually wrote “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Thanks Google…)
I suspect if you’re flying an aircraft or attempting to rewire a nuclear power plant, the poet’s words are very true.
If you’re preparing to interview someone in the public eye, I’d say that a little knowledge is actually going to lead to a far better interview than if you have researched the subject to the enth degree.
(I am not talking in terms of holding someone to account here… more on that shortly.)
The first interview I ever did was with Louise Redknapp to promote her new single “2 Faced”. (Tune, by the way…)
It wasn’t that Louise was my teen/20s crush that made this interview so bad; it was that I had no idea HOW to interview someone.
I did what I thought I should, which was to essentially revise the subject of Louise more than I had ever revised any subject ever before. After all, it was my first ever interview. Ever.
I devoured the record company’s press-release for insightful questions to ask. (The same press release that every other interviewer will have received.) I scoured the internet for quotes she’d made in previous interviews, or rumours I could ask her about.
When Louise turned up for the interview I had pages of notes and was ready. Good, hey?
In a word, no.
I asked a question and as she was answering, I’d look at my notes and ask another question unrelated to her reply; purely because it was on my list.
Louise was very good, very patient as each of her answers was met with an “uh, okay…” *glance at notes* or a “right… um…” *already preparing next question regardless of given answer*.
At one point I actually said, “You were quoted as saying….” I can’t remember the quote I gave but I do remember her answer: “Was I? Really? Oh well…” *polite laugh*
Dreadful. Awful. Terrible. And yet…
The first tip I have to share in my list of 4 ways to be a more confident interviewer: Know Only Enough To Be Curious.
People want to talk about themselves more than they want to know they could be your specialist subject on Mastermind.
And if you keep the interview fluid, you will get what an interview should get: unique content.
(Of course this isn’t one-size-fits-all. When I interviewed the former Chancellor of the Exchequer on Budget Day, I did more research than I would for a reality TV star, for example. Neither is more important than the other, it’s just that government mathematics isn’t one of my go-to topics of knowledge.)
ADDENDUM: I have found the mini-disc with that first ever interview on it. Unfortunately(!) the mini-disc player I need to share this audio is lost. Ah well…
4 Ways To Be A More Confident Interviewer: Tip 2 – Only Interview The Person Sitting In-Front Of You.
According to research that came out way before Buzzfeed was a thing, there are 5 different personality types in the world. More than that, within us we have our own different types of personality. These are, and I am no psychologist (as my A-level results confirm):
- The you when you’re on your own
- The you when you are with friends
- The you when you are with family
- The you when you are at work
- The you when you are alone with someone special
- The you when you are hungy. (Probably.)
The chances are the person you’re interviewing will be a different version of their natural personality. As will you, in all likelihood.
The thing you want to avoid is interviewing a pre-conceived image of the person in-front of you.
It’s not always easy, of course.
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with someone who had achieved something very special in their field that was considered to be life-changing; not for them necessarily, but for the people it would help.
The press release about the award was pretty standard. It was from an organisation that would often send one, maybe two press releases a day.
It was the name of the person who was being awarded that really stood out to me. It was instantly recognisible.
They had been in the news repeatedly over the years. They were part of a very high-profile situation that been covered across the globe. (There was even a special Netflix series related to it.)
This is where the Only Interview The Person Sitting In-Front Of You thought process comes in.
This person had been rewarded with funding because of their commitment to medical research. It was a very noble honour and I wanted to find out more about that aspect of them; not how they’d been perceived in the press.
I emailed them with my number. They called me. We chatted. I went back to my earlier point:
Have enough knowledge to be curious. People want to talk about themselves more than they want to know they could be your specialist subject on Mastermind.– Me, a few paragraphs up
I knew of this person from news reports but that was irrelevant. The person I was talking to now wasn’t the same one holding press conferences or batting away pap flashbulbs.
The guest, who had previously refused to give interviews to the BBC, agreed to come on-air and ended up giving a very warm, open interview about their award and their brilliant work.
4 Ways To Be A More Confident Interviewer: Tip 3 – Share Some Of You
As much as I’m writing this with memories of being a shaking, nervous broadcaster about to talk to people I’d never met before…
I am writing this as a confident, experienced broadcaster who understands that nerves work both ways.
Interviewing is as much hearing from people in communities as it is media-trained stars.
Just because someone has done interesting things, it doesn’t necessarily mean they feel comfortable having a microphone thrust in their face, even it has all been pre-arranged. This is where the interview begins way before the microphone goes live.
(The amount of times I’ve had someone look at that microphone as if I’m about to squirt water into their eye, like it’s a clown’s lapel flower.)
“I hate the sound of my voice” is something I hear a lot. “So do I, ” I say. “And you’ll be fine, it’s always me I have to edit out.”
Being a good interviewer, I believe, is as much about them feeling relaxed with you as it is about asking the right questions. If they relax, they’ll talk more and you won’t need half the questions you thought you might.
Of course, it depends on the interview. Although I do enjoy the occassional hold to account interview, I’m largely writing this in mind of lighter or more people-focussed interviewing I’ve done.
In fact in harder cases, you’ll probably get a better interview if they’re not relaxed…
4 Ways To Be A More Confident Interviewer: Tip 4 – Listen. Really Listen.
One of the first pieces of advice I was given is probably the most obvious after you’ve heard it.
Listen. Really listen.
I have come a long way since that first interview with Louise Redknapp but the reason I cringe thinking back to it is less about the style, and more about how rude it must have come across.
It was the interview equivalent of staring at your phone when someone is talking to you. *shivers*
It taught me to heed that advice: Listen. Just listen.
Listening with the eyes is a good technique too. Eye contact shows you’re really paying attention to what is being said, but it also coaxes an extended answer.
Hold the gaze, ride out the silence… the chances are the interviewee will fill it. Again, as with Only Interview The Person Sitting In-Front Of You, it works even if you’re not in the same room. (There’s poetic licence in these titles you know…)
A pause on the phone or down a feed is the equivalent of holding a gaze.
I was going to add Be Interested to this list, but if you just listen to the person, you’ll naturally be interested in what they’re saying anyway. (A really brilliant example of someone sharing their behind-the-scenes interviewing stories can be found here.)
4 Ways To Be A More Confident Interviewer: Putting It Into Practice.
Thinking back on all the interviews I have ever done, the one that really stands out in terms of how these 4 steps had evolved me from that first interview was with Baroness Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence.
I loved that interview because I inadvertently used the 4 Ways To Be A More Confident Interviewer throughout.
- Know Only Enough To Be Curious: I only knew enough about Doreen Lawrence to understand her public persona, and I really wanted to find out more about her as a person.
- Only Interview the Person Sitting In-front of You: The woman fighting for social justice on a TV screen was well-known; lesser known was the calm, considered mother sitting next to me
- Share Some Of You: My son was 2-years-old when I interviewed Mrs Lawrence. I spoke of my son, as a parent, and chatted before we recorded.
- Listen. Really listen: I wanted to find out more about Doreen the person and so each question I had was simply a response to her answer. It was organic.
Afterwards I had an email from Baroness Lawrence’s representatives. She wanted to let me know it was one of her favourite ever interviews, because she felt so relaxed throughout it. (You can hear the full interview here.)
If you are going to interview someone, a few butterflies or a bit of adrenalin isn’t a bad thing at all. It means you want it to go well.
And if you relish it, and if you listen, then it will. It really, really will.
(Hear some more of my interviews and find out how I can create audio for your podcast here.)