Stylish interviews are hard to come by, these days.
Just as blogging opened up the possibility for everyone to be published immediately, podcasting has opened up the possibility for everyone to be a radio star.
The problem that I see is that not many people actually study the art of either (a) good interviews, or (b) effective interrogation.
I’m writing this ahead of interviewing the author Mike Michalowicz about his new book Clockwork. It’s not the first time I’ve interviewed Mike. And it’s really a long way from my first interview. The method that I use I published many, many years ago – back when I was mentoring music journalists.
You may have heard that one of the best ways to learn something is to record yourself doing it.
I learned how not to do interviews simply by cringeing as I listened to myself to transcribe them. When you can’t stand listening to the stupid, annoying, cringe-worthy comments you make; when you can’t stand the quality of your recording; when you would never – not in a million years! – let anybody listen to your interview because you literally talked over every single thing your interviewee said, that’s the best training you can get.
So listen to yourself. Record yourself. Write notes about what you suck at, what behaviours you hate, and ideas about what to do better next time.
This is the best way to get to mastery.
However, I recognise that you might not have the luxury of time.
If that’s the case, here’s what you need to do: Study people. Study conversation. Practice every single day – and then make notes to yourself about what to improve.
Study the art of conversation
Dale Carnegie’s classic work How to win friends and influence people is the very first place to go to. Even if you have read it. Even if you have read it multiple times. Go and read it again.
Right on page 114, under How to be a good conversationalist, you find this passage:
… she remarked that she and her husband had recently returned from a trip to Africa. “Africa!” I exclaimed. “How interesting! I’ve always wanted to see Africa, but I never got there except for a twenty-four-hour stay once in Algiers. Tell me, did you visit the big-game country? Yes? How fortunate. I envy you. Do tell me about Africa.”
That kept her talking for forty-five minutes. She never again asked me where I had been or what I had seen. She didn’t want to hear me talk about my travels. All she wanted was an interested listener, so she could expand her ego and tell me about where she had been.
Was she unusual? No. Many people are like that.Dale Carnegie, How to win friends and influence people.
If you are any good at extracting lessons from what you write, you’ll have grasped immediately what Carnegie is driving at. It is: Be interested in the other person; and listen.
Think back to the last podcast you heard that bored the shit out of you.
Chances are, the interviewer had a list of questions and just pummelled his or her way through them. Chances are, there was no conversation. Or, if there was, it was a functional conversation.
They were probably not that interested in the other person.
It is particularly important when you record a conversation to be published that you imagine yourself on a stage in front of other people. I know that conducting interviews by phone is particularly challenging, because you can’t watch for body language, but developing the capability of picking up on cues is what makes the difference between a functional interview and a stylish one.
You can practise this every single day. Every networking event. The woman at the supermarket checkout, who has nothing better to do than scan items and chat. Your partner. Your sister’s kids. Someone else’s kids.
Study the art of conversation. Then practice being interested in others.
Let yourself go down the rabbithole
I’ve heard many engaging interviews over the years, from radio and TV to podcasts. Americans tend to be super hyped and enthusiastic, which is how they convey energy in audio. Australians and Brits tend to rely more on stylish conversation. Instead of ignoring that moment where, when you listen, you think, ‘Ooh that sounds interesting’, they go down the rabbithole.
Andrew Denton, for example, is great at this. His interviews aren’t just deep-dive interviews; he’s capable of asking difficult questions with empathy, and then to follow through on whatever comes out the other side.
You can’t script that.
You can’t write questions for that.
All you can do is prepare ahead of time, and then be in the moment.
Being prepared to go down the rabbithole might mean being prepared to spend more time with someone. It also means being prepared to edit afterwards.
However, it can get you incredible results. In my own life, I’ve learned insanely amazing things about people. For example, I know that the idea of Santa in a thong makes Rob Halford giggle. I know that Rob Cavestany wants to spend time with Australian frogs because he just loves them. I know that Mike Michalowicz loves his garden, and is a fan of Def Leppard. It’s gotten me dinner with international authors, and personal hang-time with people from bands like Arch Enemy and Cannibal Corpse.
And when I meet new people, it turns strangers into friends.
It takes time and effort, because you are required to listen actively. Whatever it is that gives you that spark in your belly that says, man I’d love to know about that, just go there. Who’s going to stop you?
A stylish interview is well structured
Even though I’m telling you to be interested in people, and to go down the rabbithole, you still need a good structure.
When you look over your interview questions, ask yourself whether they tell a story.
Let’s be honest. If you’re writing a feature article, or editing a podcast episode, you don’t want to have to cut and paste sections together. It’s much easier to create the backbone of your story (all interviews tell a story, too, ok) at the stage of questions.
I’ll give you an example.
For this forthcoming interview with Mike, I had done my research and reading. Last night I scribbled out a draft set of questions.
They were all over the place! They went from his book, to his apparent rap project, and then back to the book, and then somewhere else.
Would I do that in an interview? Hell no. It’s the fastest way to look like an amateur.
A stylish interview follows a designed pathway. Imagine you are listening to it later, either to transcribe or to publish in audio, and you’re engaged in the story. What does that look and/or sound like?
Now you’ve got that picture in your mind, go back to your questions. Shuffle them, rewrite them, add as many cues as you need to, to make them fly.
Just remember to leave space for the rabbitholes you find along the way.
A stylish interview is humane, informative, and interesting
It’s the kind of conversation you just love being a fly on the wall for. It requires you to:
- be well prepared
- have thought about the most useful flow (for you)
- have thought about the most rational flow (for your interviewee)
- have thought about the most engaging flow (for others)
- follow what interests you
- be willing to chase interest rather than completeness.
Why do you have to be willing to chase interest instead of completeness?
When you are inside a great interview, even three hours won’t be enough.
Hitting the right chord with someone will create the conditions for an intimate and valuable conversation. You will find that your interviewee talks and talks; you will find that you get interested in even more things that they say, despite yourself.
Know that if you’ve got 10 questions, then if you know your stuff, the interview will run for an hour. And even then, you may find that there just isn’t time for everything.
Selecting and culling during the interview is critical. But only ever chase interest, unless you have a brief to cover specific things. When you chase interest, you’ll entertain many more people than just yourself.
Reflect on your performance
Listen back to yourself – or watch yourself in action, if you record on video. But don’t do it passively. Sure, if you’re transcribing, then it’s functional – but the reflection piece is what will help you level up.
Never assume that your bad behaviours won’t re-emerge. They do. I found myself failing to listen properly to people, and talking over them, ten years after I first made that awful mistake. You require constant vigilance.
The kind of notes to keep are:
- What went well
- What you’re proud of doing
- What challenge you felt in-situ
- What you could do better next time.
This is the fast-track to mastery. If, indeed, there is one. 😉
Learn more about the art of interviews in Music Journalism 101
This was the first book on the mechanics of rock journalism, and the very best way to get your feet wet. It covers all kinds of interviews, from research to execution, and gives you checklists to make your life easy.