By: Bram Weinstein/@RealBramW
So this isn’t going to happen if and when you you are lucky enough to land a live shot with Donald Trump nor honestly would you want to pre-interview him. Why spoil the surprise?
But in the case of the vast majority of subjects you will be inserting into your work, knowing what they are going to say (or at least the gist of it) can help you break down your own expectations. I can’t tell you how many times I was in the newsroom and production team would discuss line of questioning for a live interview and invariably someone who thought one particular question would be a waste would say “But we know what he’s going to say to that!” Do you?
As you become experienced at reporting and interviewing, you’ll start to get a sixth sense of having some foresight into whether a particular line of questioning will bear anything new or insightful. That’s the goal here right, learn something from the person you are speaking with. If that’s not the goal then you are part of an informercial, run to the nearest exit.
In many cases, you won’t have the luxury of speaking with a subject before you tape or go live and so understanding the material and asking well formed questions is on you. You have one shot at this. But, if you are doing a feature or long form package and the deadline isn’t right now, then you should have the opportunity to either formally or casually speak to the subject beforehand. This is your opportunity to vet the right information. And this is the spot where you can ask that question everyone thinks they already know the answer to. What if they don’t?
The pre-interview is essential. Every late night talk show employs the pre-interview. All those great stories the stars tell to the host? They already told them to a writer on staff, along with five other stories the writer didn’t deem as interesting. So the writer tells the host where to lead the guest and magically you have a segment that looks like a conversation but might as well have been rehearsed. The big rub here for news and sports reporters is unless you are dealing with someone who is a professional entertainer, their stories won’t be as polished. So the pre-interview becomes the key to time management and gathering the best and most useful information. It will also allow you the opportunity to phrase your questions. This is a key element that is often overlooked.
How many times have you seen a reporter ask a question that is rambling and peppered with assumptions? One of the most prized assets of ESPN was John Sawatsky, an interview specialist who worked with all of the on air talent (check out this article on him). Sawatsky is a wiry Canadian man who has no time for run on sentences. He also hates and I mean hates questions that allow for the savvy guest to answer with a yes or no. He likes what he calls “lean, open ended questions.” Learning his techniques take some getting used to because we on air people rarely can see the value of speaking less! But say you do get an interview with Trump and you want to ask him about he would go about building a wall protecting the southern border of the United States (put your politics aside and remember you are reporting the news here). There are plenty of ways to ask this question but here are the most popular formats: 1) “Earlier in your campaign Mr. Trump, you stated you would immediately begin the process of building a wall to protect our border from illegal immigrants crossing into the country. You have received a lot of criticism for this position being un-American and are now dealing with accusations from opponents over inciting violence at your campaign stops. Are your positions dangerous?” or 2) “How do you feel about your position on immigration based on recent incidents of violence at campaign stops?”
That first question is more dramatic and because Trump doesn’t seem to mind being in a mental war, would probably give you a great answer but the second one is open ended thus leaving the possibility of him saying anything. The first question demands Trump defend his previous positions. The second one allows him a safe place to backtrack. The second question is non threatening and not laced with a predisposition. It also forces Trump to answer with more then a one word answer. In the end, the more powerful question is the second one because it allows you to remain in the position of information conduit. Trump may make news here because you allowed him to and that for your purpose is so much more powerful for you and your brand then by taking a predetermined position and drawing a line in the sand.
The pre interview allows you to determine which lines of questioning will likely garner the most interesting information. You may be surprised by what you learn from a subject before the cameras are rolling. It also allows for the subject (who in all likelihood is not nearly as comfortable speaking to reporters then say Donald Trump) the confidence to tell their stories because you are asking about it for a second time, an unspoken pact that this person is about to say something worthwhile. They’ll be confident doing so. It doubles as allowing you to determine how to question that person with the Sawatsky methods. Say the subject is a newly elected Congressman but in the pre-interview you learn that his parents wanted him to stay out of politics. You hadn’t heard this before and you think it will help shape the profile of this elected official so you ask, “what do your parents think of this honor?” What an amazing turn that is going to take for the viewer because, like the producer in the newsroom who says, “What do you think he’s going to say to that?,” the viewer often has predispositions to what he expects to hear and when you surprise them, you become effective.
Pre interviews help get past trite material. Pre interviews help streamline what exactly you should spend time talking about. Any good news or talk show who have experts on should never go on live without having some sort of pre show discussion about direction. And it is then up to the host to figure out not only how to get to this new ground but to do it in a way that feels like it is part of a natural conversation. Some hosts like to pull the curtain up and preface a subject with “we were talking about this before the show and you told me something really interesting…” Others like to try to just get the conversation there in a manner in which it feels organic.
Lastly, there is an aspect of the pre-interview that can be dangerous. Now that you have a general idea of what is about to be said, there is a tendency to go into auto drive and not pay as close attention to the words. The pre interview can make a subject comfortable with what is about to happen and alleviate fears they’ll be asked about something that makes them uncomfortable. But it can also release the inhibitions to a degree that they say more then they even expected to. If you aren’t listening, you won’t be able to provide a great follow up question and continue down that line of thinking.
At ESPN on Sportscenter we would often have live interviews with any number of sports figures. Very rarely would be spend more then 4 minutes with anyone unless it was a special circumstance (Peyton Manning on the day of his retirement or something like that). You typically have a lot of questions for any guest and depending how talkative the guest is, 4 minutes typically is not enough time to get into more then one or two topics. But you’ll see host after host transition from one thing to another to another to another. And none of it leads to anything substantive.
Sawatsky pines for less subject matter and more information on the most interesting aspects. So, do a pre interview, determine which is the most new and interesting thing the subject is willing to discuss and listen closely. Follow Up and don’t leave that subject until the conversation demands you go in a different direction. The interview should never leave the viewer wondering why the interviewer strayed away from what would be the normal course of conversation.
Email me at Bram@reelmediagroup.tv or comment below. Follow me on Twitter/Instagram and Snapchat at @RealBramW.