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Best Practices for On-Camera Interviews and Beyond

Posted by on Apr 11, 2011 in BLOG | No Comments

I’m writing this post from the perspective of someone who interviews people for a (part time) living on camera, but anyone can use these pointers in day to day job interviews, speaker moderation, or just good old networking. In an age when so much communication is no longer face to face, it’s no wonder that less and less people enjoy the art of bringing out the best in other people through conversation. Even pros like Steven Colbert or late night hosts like Jimmy Fallon seem less interested in talking to their subjects and more engaged with setting up the next punchline to showcase their own (sometimes dubious) wit.

An interview is a strange beast: one person controlling the flow of information and discussion for two people. At its best, it looks and feels like a spirited discussion of great ideas between big personalities. At its worst, it can be embarrassing, stilted, boring and even hostile. Rare gems like Jerry Springer love that last kind of interview; personally I’ll pass. Journalists like Scott Pelley and notoriously, Mike Wallace, love head-on confrontations with people they believe are in the wrong. (Which kind of interview do you personally enjoy? Comment below!)

Thecommich wants to give the world a Coke, or at least the kind of goodwill that a civilized, informative and fun interview can engender – between host and subject, and within the audience. Herewith, some tips on achieving this:

1. Know your Stuff

This is one of the many corollaries to what I like to call my Very First Rule: Don’t be Lazy.  Anyone who’s interviewed a potential new hire knows that you have to read the person’s resume first. If the result of your interview affects someone else’s bottom line – the network’s ratings, say, or the difference between hiring a good coworker or a drooling idiot – I suggest you do your homework before sitting in that chair.

One word: Google. All you need is a name and that search engine, and chances are you will find good dirt (or at least the dirt you need to formulate good questions – more on that later). Of course, it doesn’t hurt to email the person directly and ask. The more you find the better.

If you have the good fortune to be interviewing a mega famous person, you’re probably talking to their handler. And you’re also probably helping that person promote something – a movie, a book, a leaked sex tape, what have you. Again, do the research. What’s it about? What are the reviews like? Did you personally like it? Is there backstage/pre-production gossip on its making?

I always like to talk to my interview subjects for a little bit before going on air, and asking them simple and easy questions like “how’s your day been? What are you doing after this taping?” It gives me a chance to see a little glimpse of their daily life, and an opportunity to ask them something more immediate and personal (“…you mentioned you are heading to a soccer tournament. I never realized you liked to play!”)

2. Keep it Focused

I mean this in two ways: first, and most obviously, pay attention to who you’re talking to.  I’ve seen interviewers fiddling with their hair on stage, making jokes off camera, or not even looking at their subject after asking the question. All no bueno. If you are over the age of 5, I’m pretty sure you can shut up, sit still and listen to someone for 5 minutes.

The second thing is to keep the questions focused, and to stay in control. What makes a good question? Something that is not answerable by a “yes” or “no.” You want your subject to open up. Ask why, when, how and where. “Why did you decide to take this project on?” “When did you know you were destined to be a writer?” “Where did you start your martial arts career?”

Remember: as an interviewer, YOU are in control of the conversation. It’s YOUR responsibility, not the guest’s, to make the segment interesting, informative and on topic. Jon Stewart likes to let his interviewees say whatever the hell they want – but then again his interviewees are Presidents, Nobel Prize winners and Hollywood stars. If you’re working with less rarified talent, I suggest you have ways to rein them in. I once interviewed an actress who would not, for the life of her, stop talking. My producer was yelling in my ear to “Wrap it uuuuuuup!”, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Or at least, I thought I couldn’t. In my star struck state I forgot who was really in charge and let her feel comfortable enough to take over. The result was a portion that was way overtime, impossible to edit (because of the non stop nattering) and where I looked like a total moron smiling placidly while this woman ran over me with her mouth.

3. It’s Not Just About Facts

Elizabeth Ramsay on Adobo Nation

The most memorable interviews I’ve had stick in my head for one reason: I felt real emotion from my subject. Sometimes all it takes is one question. Elizabeth Ramsay, the legendary Filipino comedienne, told me once how she had to live in her relatives’ garage when she first moved to the US. I asked her, as gently as I could, “how did that feel, especially since you had come from so much success?” She cried and asked me not to continue the line of questioning. I obliged, but every answer she gave after that was thoughtful, nostalgic and touching. Another couple had started a super successful sushi restaurant in LA, after almost 20 years of fighting for American citizenship and making their long way up the culinary ladder. Hearing them talk about their struggles, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the studio.

Even job interviews can be much more revealing when you ask questions beyond KPIs and projects accomplished. “How did you feel about leaving your former company?” is a great way to gauge maturity level, and how this person deals with change. “How did you like your former co-workers? How happy are you with your life right now?” People don’t stop being human in the office, and the sooner you know what kind of human you’re dealing with, the better for your organization.

4. Wrap it Up… With a Bow

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Professional is in the details. Learning how to end an interview smoothly is a detail that takes a surprising amount of practice. Most subjects can sense their time about to end, and try to squeeze in a couple more facts/zingers/non sequiturs at the last minute (which, as I said in my previous post, is really annoying). Sometimes, a swift, brisk (yet polite) interruption is the best way to say goodbye.

Hopefully your classy subject knows the time has come, and lets you lead into goodbyes. In this case, thank them for their time and reiterate what they came to promote (“Thanks Maria, and good luck on your show Maria Goes To Washington!”). For job interviews, for God’s sake be nice and let them know when they can expect a result.  Give a last big smile, and either wait for “cut” or walk them out the door.

Tah Daah! You’re done. Let me know how it went on the comment box below.

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