The Art of the Interview: Part II

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“Interviews are not Q&A sessions; they are conversations. The next question must not come from your notes. It must come from your guest’s answer to your last question. You’ll have an engaging conversation by being an active listener” – Larry King.

Preoccupation with what you’re going to ask next rather than listening to your guest causes you to miss opportunities that could take the conversation down a road you may not have even considered. Larry King did not do a lot of research on his guests because he wanted to remain curious and ask questions that most viewers would ask because most of them didn’t know the whole story (only the headline); they hadn’t read the book or hadn’t seen the movie. King said, “The secret to my success is brevity, sincerity, and, above all, curiosity.” You must have a genuine, authentic curiosity about your guest.

NPR’s Terri Gross takes the opposite approach to interviews. Gross is a monster planner and researcher. She asks questions that often surprise guests because she has done her homework. Jeff spoke to Terri once at an NAB convention in Philadelphia and she shared that “I am a terrible friend.” She said that she leaves WHYY at the end of the day, has dinner with her husband in the deli on the first floor of their apartment building, then works late into the night to prepare for the next day’s interview. The cycle of preparation and work repeats for Terri the next day.

Here are more tips on conducting killer interviews:

Entertain first, sell second. Take a page from the late night talk shows and discuss what your guest is promoting during the last part of the interview. Make it clear to publicists, handlers, etc. that the show will promote the guest’s project and we want to have an entertaining and fun conversation. That benefits the guest no matter how famous they are.

Surprise your guests. Shoboy and Nina, Amp 923 NYC, recently had Ne-Yo on their show and they surprised him with the audio and video of his kids saying, “hi daddy.” Check out the audio.

Avoid “yes” or “no” questions and questions that incorporate the answer into your question. If you remember the old Chris Farley Show sketch on Saturday Night Live, his talk show host character is a perfect example of what not to do. Interviewing Paul McCartney, Farley asks, “Remember when you were with the Beatles and you were supposed to be dead and there were all these clues like you’d play a song backward and it would say ‘Paul is dead’ and everyone thought you were dead? That was just a hoax, right?”

Ask open-ended questions. Be specific and follow up with questions about their perspective and feelings. For instance, “Tell us the story of how did you got engaged? What was going through your head?” “When” questions takes the person to a scene, a setting and often to a story. For example, “When did you first realize…?”

Ask sensitive questions deeper into the interview after you’ve established a rapport with the guest. Then alternate difficult questions with easier ones. Oprah was particularly good at balancing her personal brand values of compassion and non-judgment with the need to ask tough questions. Example, “Some people think it’s odd for a man to get pregnant. How do you answer those people?”

Question clusters can be an effective device to help you delve deeper into someone’s personality. A series of questions on one topic are best asked one at a time so they aren’t overwhelmed. “Tell me about the time you lost your cool with a director… How did it finally end? What did you learn from that situation?” are examples of this technique.


Photo Credit: Tavis Ford/Flickr

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