By Bram Weinstein/@RealBramW:

Last week we talked about the importance of a pre-interview.  But let’s assume you aren’t always going to have time to talk to the person beforehand.  If you are a journalist and reading this blog, you know that happens, a lot.  Today I want to talk about he thought processes behind constructing a memorable interview with a true guest of the program – with or without a pre-interview.

I’ve talked about John Sawatsky before (you can click here for some background on him). He is renowned for his ability to construct questions and flow to interviews. His tenets for effective questioning are simple:

1) Keep the questions lean (free of your own thought processes of the answer you expect)

2) Ensure that the answer given cannot be formed with a simple Yes or No

3) Listen closely for follow up opportunities and when they arise be sure to continue to utilize the first two tenets.. You would be stunned to the extent of which this can make for memorable moments without you pontificating.

The guest is the star of this particular moment. Now your role is to take the guest to a place of comfort in the hope of learning something new about the scenario by which they are coming on. Verbose long rambling questions are unnecessary. Nor do you need to showcase to the guest how profoundly prepared you are by citing fact after fact when asking questions. If the responses you get are counter to what you believe to be true, you can challenge, but you can do that with an economy of words.

HOW TO KEEP IT ‘LEAN’ …

Thus, as Sawatsky would advise, keep your questions lean. For instance, lets say you are interviewing a star player on a team who is underachieving in recent games. Reports are out there citing numerous sources suggesting the issues are in the locker room, that team chemistry has been compromised. If you directly cite something you read to start this interview, you risk the subject flatly denying the rumors and hitting a stonewall, but if you ask the first question about this issue in a “lean” way such as: “How would you describe the chemistry of the team at this time?” you have left the door open for any interpretation inside the players mind. He has no definitive out.

Now this player may cite things you already read about and if he does, you can follow up about that specific report but he opened this door for you to do so. If his answer is succinct, you can follow up with a more detailed question that includes reference to all of the various reports suggesting otherwise. A short simple querie that does not allow the subject to answer in  yes or no fashion forcing that person to go into some level of specificity and that is the object of the interview in the first place.

Remember – listening is key … it becomes a key element in interviewing. This is not to suggest you are going to attempt to use the subject’s words against them, this rarely should feel like an interrogation. You are not holding a public court. But you are seeking the truth as that person knows it so that the conversation can move forward organically.

THE ‘HOW’ AND ‘WHY’S’ MATTER …

Some interviews are not going to be about what’s wrong, but what’s right. In the same vein, asking a question that includes laudatory verbage allows the subject to merely agree with your sentiments. This doesn’t make you look smarter, it only paints the picture of an interview that has no substance. Allow the player to explain why he thinks the team got to the Super Bowl. Have them explain in detail the key play that won the game without adding any extraneous viewpoints that you perceive. This applies to interviews on all levels. If you are interviewing a politician about the passing of a landmark bill, have that person retrace the steps for you in how this was accomplished. Use as few adjectives as possible and structure the question with “How” or “why” not “Are you pleased with the result?”

Stonewalling is rare if you ask the questions in the right fashion. The truth is in my experience that anyone who agrees to go into an interview is willing to talk. The object is to get them to a place where they feel comfortable doing so. Radio interviews often mine deeper and get better information out of the subject. It’s my guess that the reason is because the person on the other line is comfortable in their own setting. They aren’t on alert having to sit a certain way, dressed a certain way or with bright lights in their eyes. Radio interviews are almost universally more casual but the tenets of asking questions the right way applies.

Time restrictions are an enormous factor, especially in television. Podcasters can choose to keep an interview for as long as they so choose. Radio interviewers will often continue conversations longer than usual if the information is good.

Television pacing remains paramount to the producers. An exclusive is one thing, but the only times you will see a television interview run longer then approximately five minutes is if the subject is that interesting or the information being given is that surprising or worth continued investigation. Producers will and should be wary of letting an interview drag on TV. Podcasters are likely to retain their audience even if an interview hits a lull. Radio interviewers have listeners often in their car so flipping to an alternative is not as prevalent. But on TV, the remote control is your enemy. So are the various options a click a way for a viewer. Thus the interview must be strong to commit any length of time to. So this is one you and your team to have a game plan for the best possible outcome.

You have to make the choice going in whether you want to focus on one particular facet of the subjects life or whether you want to touch on an array of topics. Sawatsky will say that focusing on fewer aspects always makes for better results. Your game plan is to let the interview proceed organically. Take a premise, allow for an answer and see where the conversation takes you using the tenets of asking good lean follow ups.

LET’S GIVE IT A SHOT:

Say Brett Favre is your subject and you want to learn about why he kept retiring an un-retiring from football. If you ask a question about it and he answers then you decide to quickly move on to what he thinks of the current Packers quarterback, you may miss the opportunity to learn something about Favre and the mindset of aging stars.

In general, conversations you have with anyone you find interesting off camera is not typically constructed in a rapid fire question mode on various topics. You’ll ask that person something as simple as “How’s life?” The answer you get will often carry that conversation to a place you either didn’t expect or didn’t know. In the real world, you would likely follow up on that question. The person who isn’t paying attention or didn’t care what you had to say in the first place simply moves on. The same policy applies. You have to act interested. Actually, in truth you have to be interested. If you come off as uninterested in what they have to say, why would your viewer care?

In this regard, it is best to prepare multiple subjects for the interviewee and be prepared to not get to most of them. If the conversation is educational, why leave the subject.? If the conversation is flowing naturally and there appears to be some chemistry with you and the guest, why change topics quickly? Of course, your best laid plans rarely work out the way you envision them so you need to be adept at transitioning to the next subject time permitting should the interview feel like it naturally has reached a course by which you must focus on something else. Everyone constructing this interview must be on the same page that forgoing potential subjects is a plausible outcome.

MAKE IT MEMORABLE:

The goal is a memorable experience where you learn something new, not to get a bunch of surface level canned answers to a variety of topics for the sake of asking the interviewee about them. This takes time and repetition to learn when it is appropriate to follow up and when it’s time to move on. Learning that skill will keep viewers and listeners longer. Pushing too hard on a subject the interviewee is unwilling to go in depth about can feel like prodding and likely will get a more terse response and shut down avenues to shift gears. Leaving a subject too early leaves the consumer wondering why you didn’t ask a natural follow up.

All interviews are different. Some go better then you anticipate and others go worse. Getting a feel for the direction things are going is an adapted skill. The best advice is to never assume how things will play out or anticipate exactly what anyone is going to say. By doing so, you set yourself up for a surprise you aren’t ready to handle. Open your mind up and know that you don’t live in that person’s world and what you perceive may not be the truth or at least the truth as the subject sees it. Understand that not everything is a comfortable subject to discuss and be prepared for that to manifest itself in a speed bump or potentially an open lane to new ground.

If you have comments or questions, please email me at Bram@reelmediagroup.tv.

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