Knowing how to conduct an interview is almost as critical as knowing how to be a good interviewee. Having been on both sides of the recording desk myself, I can tell you that there is an art to both.
In this article I’m going to give you some tips that will ensure that your contribution to the interview is the best that it can be.
How to be a good interviewer
There are loads of things going on for you, as an interviewer. Not least of these is your desire to make this interview a great one! Personal expectations play a huge role in your approach, because they influence how you feel, which in turn influences how you speak and whether you respond or react to your interviewee.
You are also looking at the themes, topics or questions you want to cover. You want to follow the conversation, and you want to come across as someone of value.
As I’ve written about before, both here and in Music Journalism 101, the best interviews are conversations. The unspoken guide here is that to be a great interviewer, study the art of conversation.
1. Be prepared for all interview eventualities
There is nothing worse than an unprepared interviewer. I don’t just mean, ‘have you done your homework’, I mean:
- have everything running, tested, and working way earlier than you anticipate (your interviewee could be early). If you’re a music journalist, then there are times in which nobody else is ready so your slot is 2 hours earlier than you anticipated. Be ready.
- have a back-up in place. Technology can, and does, fail; make sure you’ve got fall-backs running.
- have everything you need in front of you: Guidelines, questions, notepad, etc.
- know about your interviewee, including the personal stuff; kick off the conversation before the interview begins.
- know how you intend to bring the conversation back to topics.
2. Be able to follow a conversation
One of the absolute worst experiences for a good interviewee is to be confronted with an interviewer who just barges into the next question.
If you’re going to do that, send a questionnaire.
An interview is a warm, conversational relationship. This is particularly important if the audio is going to be published somewhere, on a video, in a podcast, or over the radio.
Great interviews are warm, intense, and personal. That only happens when you, as the interviewer, can follow the conversation. If there’s an interesting or juicy something dropped by your interviewee, ignore your questions unless it’s totally off the topic!
3. Respect your interviewee and stick to time
A rule of thumb that I follow has proved itself over and over again. That is: With a moderately talkative interviewee, and an interviewer who can turn it into a conversation, 10 questions will create an hour-long interview.
This means that if you have only 20 minutes, you must:
- be ruthless about the territory you want to cover
- be able to bring your interviewee back to the topic
- ignore your own yearnings when you spot a conversation thread that is fascinating for you but that isn’t going to add value to your audience.
Sticking to time doesn’t mean telling people how much time you have, commenting that you don’t have much time, or otherwise making the machinery visible.
Instead, keep it low-key, shape the conversation the way you require it, and close it naturally when you’re done.
How to be a good interviewer: In summary
Holding your own as a good interviewer requires you to be calm, collected, 100% present, and engaged. It brings a confidence to your interviews that makes your interviewee feel at home.
By being properly prepared, being able to follow a conversation, and by sticking to time, you’re telling your interviewee that you’re a pro. They will feel comfortable and respected; and they will enjoy the ride.
It’s almost a rulebook for charm. Be charming! Be engaged! Leave them wanting more conversation with you! If you can do that, there’s a very good chance that you’ll get them back.
How to be a good interviewee
Being an interviewee is nerve-wracking, too, but in a different way. Suddenly, the power isn’t in your hands. You will be subjected to (good or bad) questioning by an interviewer, and your experience will largely be shaped by your interviewer’s skill.
However, there are things that you can do to make sure that the interview is as good as it can be.
1. Do as much preparation as you can
At the very least, understand the goals for the interview. Regardless of whether or not you asked for the interview, you will still want to know as much about the situation as possible.
- What is the destination or outcome for the interview? For example, if it’s going live on radio, and you’re out doing your shopping, the quality for the interview will be shit. (Don’t laugh – I’ve interviewed bands who were out doing errands the day before they left for a long tour cycle. It happens.)
- What’s it about? If they asked you for the interview, then hopefully you knew that before you said yes. If you asked them (or you applied – such as for a podcast interview), then you’ll want to find out anything you can about the shape. Hopefully they’ll send it to you, but not everybody is organised.
- Is it structured, or loose? If it’s structured, you might be able to get a copy of the questions ahead of time. Though, warning: If you do, expect it to be a questionnaire and not a conversation!
- Know who the interviewer is, if possible. Find out whatever you can about them, and understand their experience. If they’re inexperienced, you’ll know that you might need to guide them.
- Outcomes of their past work. This will give you an indication about whether or not to spend your time in preparation.
2. If it’s online, show up for your interview early
The subtext for this is: Make sure that the software works, that your mic is playing nicely with your machinery, that your internet is kicking goals.
Then, when you are in the meeting early, your host will understand that you’re a pro: The audio will work, everything will sound great, there are no glitches, and to top it off, you beat them to the post.
Wow! Now that’s a great experience for your interviewer.
If you’re wondering why that’s important, consider that they might want to have you back sometime. When interviewers reflect on all of the interviews they’ve ever had, it’s the people who were playing to win that come back. Treat yourself like the professional that he or she expects.
3. Know what you want to say
It’s all well and good to go into an interview situation cold. If your interviewer is talented, then it’ll probably be ok. But if you want to feel comfortable, know what you’re going to say.
If you’re in business, and you’re using podcasts as a way to grow your mailing list (for example), taking half an hour to prepare is time well-spent.
- A maximum of three key things that your audience can takeaway and use today if possible. They’re taking time out of their day to listen to you, so give them something useful in return.
- Prepare some topics ahead of time that fit into your interviewer’s bandwagon. It doesn’t need to be many, or detailed. Just some high-level points that you’re an expert in. Do some daydreaming about what the conversation could flow like, and prepare yourself for any shift in direction based on the conversation.
- Decide on one major lesson that you can share, just in case you’re asked. (Podcasters do this a lot!)
If you’re not a business, but are instead in a band, then:
- Think about the point of the interview. Is it a tour cycle? Have ready the key points that people will want to know. Is it a new album or EP? Same deal. Try not to roll out the same bog-standard responses to everyone, because every audience is different.
- Be open in your responses. Loads of interviewers are rubbish at what they do, and you’ll encounter the same standard questions over and over and over again. By the same token, loads of interviewers just get the same answers, even if the questions are helpful! Be open, respond clearly, and allow yourself to tell a story. It gives your interviewer more to play with.
- Be open to taking the piss, but make sure that your interviewer gets it before you do. If they don’t, then there’s a good chance that you’ll come across looking like a sarcastic cunt.
4. Breathe and relax
Being interviewed is anxiety-inducing because you are in a position of ignorance, and the interviewer is in a position of power. Your very best defence is to breathe, to relax, to slow down.
Remember to let the interviewer speak, and to not speak over them. Do not interrupt them! Bite your lip if you have to!
When you are relaxed, your brain works more effectively, and you will be able to turn the interview into a conversation. This means that you can ask the interviewer questions. It’s more engaging to listen to when it’s a to-and-fro, and not just you being interrogated.
By the same token, when you’re relaxed, the audience can hear it.
If your interview is by phone or internet audio, here is a huge tip: Cross your hands over your heart region. If you are able to drop your voice down into your chest and “speak through your heart”, as some say, then the quality of your voice becomes warm, resonant, and clear. Your interviewee and your audience will hear it, and enjoy it.
How to be a good interviewee: In Summary
When you are prepared, show up early, know what you’re going to say, and are relaxed, then you become – almost naturally – a great interviewee. You’ll appear confident, calm, and engaged, and able to handle any direction, any question, and any outcome. And when you do, then you become a pro almost by default.
Key takeaways for everyone
There are two things that are often neglected, by both interviewers and interviewees. They are:
- The art of conversation.
Preparation helps you to show up as your Very Best You. It’s also a mark of respect. People who are prepared make other people’s lives easier. You don’t do it for brownie points, you do it because you’re interested in making the world a nicer place. Great preparation is just good manners.
The art of conversation is, like knowing the rules of power or seduction, a hidden art. Nobody at any school will teach you how to be a good conversationalist. That’s all on you.
The very best book to get you started is How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie. The next best book is Never split the difference, by Chris Voss. Between these two, you will not only learn how to be a charming companion, you’ll learn how to keep someone talking. For interviewers the latter is critical; and for interviewees, both are important.
The best thing about interviews is that practise opportunities are everywhere. Every single person you talk to is an education opportunity: Either as an interviewee, or as a interviewer. Practise makes perfect!
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