I’ve done countless interviews with conference speakers and organisers during my time at Voxxed. Well, not countless- but I can’t really be bothered to actually count. It’s definitely over 50. Here’s a sample.
This post is what I’ve learned from my media training in the trenches. Notes to myself, horrible truths like my over-reliance on the word “cool”, cringe-worthy introductions, badly formed questions, and more.
Preparing for the interview
Know your equipment
How does the sound work? Lighting? Is everything recording? Can you upload to your laptop? Don’t go into an interview situation without doing a few practice runs, and watch them back for learnings.
Think carefully about the angle you film from, and what’s in the shot. Don’t film from below (it’s not flattering), or light from below (same reason). You might have to sit uncomfortably close to the person you’re interviewing, because on camera you look further apart then you are. But if you’re so close you’re touching knees, don’t include that in the shot.
As for the background, don’t include too much in the background, it’s distracting. Also, you can get camera-focusing issues.
As a favour to yourself, if you feel you have a “good side”, just accommodate that and always sit a certain way. Why? You have to watch the interview back. Again, and again, and again as you edit.
Getting the best from someone
Be nice. Explain about sitting close, about the format, about your questions. Start with a joke (off camera) to relax into things. Wherever possible, it should be fun.
Getting the best from yourself
Don’t mess up your hair just before the interview. I’ve done this. For some reason, I pushed all of my hair over one side of my head and then filmed. I looked stupid. The guy I was interviewing was practically laughing at me. No, sorry, he was actually laughing at me.
Prepare an introduction, and sound interested when you give it. There is really nothing more off putting then watching someone either fluster, sound bored or miserable at the beginning of an interview.
During the interview
I now avoid saying surnames, after calling Brian Goetz “Brian Goats”.
As for first names that for whatever reason your brain struggles with… you just have to keep trying.
Don’t be irritating
Train yourself out of repeat behaviours. Do you say something, like a confirmation word, quite a lot? For example (as I’ve mentioned), I say “cool”. Some alternatives could be “That’s interesting, tell me more about it,” or “ah, I didn’t expect that” and “can you elaborate?”. Listen to good radio interviewers for inspiration.
Whatever you do in normal conversation is not right for a recorded interview. Why? Because you have to watch it back when you edit. That “cool” verbal tick is going to annoy people watching it. But for you? It’s going to really, really get on your nerves.
Are you playing with your hair, or looking at your watch? Stop it. Really, you’re there to uncover something about the person you are interviewing, so you shouldn’t distract from what they say, that includes by making little fidgety movements.
During your introduction, look at the camera. When the interviewee is speaking, look at them. Nod and smile. Etc. They can alternate between looking at you and the camera as they feel comfortable.
Why is this important? When we’re not speaking, we naturally glance around at our surroundings during a conversation. Have you seen a filmed conversation where this happens? I have, and it looks like the interviewer is bored, even though they’re probably not. Also, for a viewer, any movement on the part of the person not speaking distracts you from the person who is. Make more eye contact then you usually would with your interviewee, but be sure to warn them first so they don’t think you’re a bit strange.
Wow, if only I’d actually done this when I started. I was so focused on pre-written questions that I’m sure I didn’t listen to people’s answers. I was desperately trying to remember what my next question was. If you actually listen, you’ll ask better follow on questions. If you don’t understand something, say so. The chances are that people watching won’t either, or at least some of them.
The other side of this is – just never, never interrupt.
The questions you ask
Start with something general, and agree this with the interviewee first. It gives them a chance to think about what they want to say (while you’re sound checking, or sorting out lights and angles). Don’t worry about scripting questions. Also don’t worry about knowing everything about a topic – it’s a) not possible, and b) why you’re interviewing an expert.
Saying something stupid
If you say something wrong, you can always stop, and start a sentence again (making it easier to edit).
The whole point is to allow the person you are interviewing to explain something, whether that’s a concept, a project, or an event talk. This might mean that you ask what you consider to be basic questions. This might mean that on occasion, you feel like you’re dumbing yourself down. This is fine. Absolutely fine. Why? Well, there’s a good reason Jeremy Paxman doesn’t get invited to do conference reporting.
It’s not about you, it’s about your interviewee. Are they comfortable? Do they feel like they’ve explained themselves well? Are they happy they’ve agreed in the first place? If the answers are yes, the chances are it’s a good interview.