As a working writer I’ve interviewed people professionally in a number of different styles. I think that interviewing, or at least asking people questions, is an important part of being a writer. Writers are curious folk, or nosey some might say, but having an interest in people is essential to any form of writing.
Writers tend to be listeners rather than talkers, which is a useful start in interviewing. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of writers who just want to arrogantly boast about their work. I’ve met many at networking events, believe me.
Interviewing relies on the ability to listen to what the interviewee is saying and working out what they are trying to say. Sometimes an interviewee may not quite say what are trying to say. Whether they’re a CEO on a six-figure salary or an intern just starting out, everyone can get flustered during an interview. There’s something about cameras that can have that effect on people. As an interviewer it is your job to ease the interviewee through and help them to give the answer that they want to.
Sometimes it will be as simple as re-phrasing the question. Sometimes it’s a good idea to ask the interviewee to think about the points they want to make as a bullet point list. This allows them to stick to the best information and to reel off their answer fluently.
Another role of the interviewer is to engage with an interviewee’s passion. As the camera and sound guys are preparing for the shoot, you should be chatting away to uncover the interviewee’s personality and what they’re passionate about. This will help you to get good answers from the start, as it’ll put them at ease and will give you the chance to uncover things that your research didn’t uncover.
Research is very important. You must do this before any interview. The Actors Studio interviewer James Lipton is a keen advocate of never asking a question that you don’t know the answer to. Whilst I don’t fully agree with this, I agree with the sentiment. I think at times you will be unable to find every interesting fact for an interview, but to have the base knowledge to feel confident going off-script is essential. Recently we filmed with Gail Porter and the research I’d done helped us to get the best possible footage from this shoot.
Interviewing on a corporate programme varies dramatically depending on the style and format. For instance, we use a talking heads format, so I’ll be sat just off camera and will be edited out. I’ve learned that it makes it easier to edit if I don’t speak for a second or two after the client finishes speaking. I explain this at the start so they don’t think I’m odd. I also stop myself from semi-verbal utterances like “um hm” or encouraging them by saying “yes” occasionally. We have interviewees make eye contact with me, just off camera. It helps them to maintain eye contact if I maintain eye contact also. People tend to mirror their interviewer, so I sit straight, smile, nod and maintain eye contact… Occasionally I try to put them off by affecting a facial tick. I’m joking of course.
With client shoots, a key thing to keep in mind is that they are entrusting you with their companies’ reputation. There is potentially a lot of money at stake and you need to maintain professionalism at all points. You need to arrive on time, or ideally early, with your questions ready. Sometimes working out where to shoot the interviews can eat up production time. For that reason it is essential that you’re prepared and ready to start the interview as soon as everyone else is ready for you.
One of my favourite interviews was David Frost’s with Richard Nixon, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. This was like watching a tactical battle between two Grand-Master chess players. This was brilliantly captured on Ron Howard’s 2008 film Frost/ Nixon.
Another of my favourite interviews was Muhammed Ali being interviewed by Michael Parkinson. Watching the irrepressible and endlessly charismatic Ali is always a treat, but this interview was a fascinating watch. What made Parkinson such a great interviewer was that he wasn’t scared to ask the difficult questions. This occasionally tense interview, which covers Ali’s more controversial attitudes, like disagreeing with bi-racial marriage, remains long in the memory. There was clearly a mutual respect between these two and I sensed they enjoyed their duel just as much I did.
For a video of how NOT to interview people, have a look at this clip of Paul Kaye’s comedic interviewer Dennis Pennis.
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Written by Martin Stocks | @Stocks1986