What Makes a Good Interviewer?

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For the past decade I’ve been a journalist, essentially making it up as I go along, and this particularly holds true of my presentation style. I’m 28 now, but my foray into presenting began at the BBC at just 19 years old, covering the afternoon show at Guernsey’s local radio station. It was very much a baptism of fire, given the only formal training I’d received was how to pronounce the odd quirky French(ish) Guernsey road names for the travel bulletin. Side note, I was born and raised in Guernsey and still couldn’t pronounce them…embarrassing. But my point is, I was young and had to make it up, so needless to say I don’t listen back to that first show. It left a lot to be desired — not least because I called the band INXS the inks (it does read that way to be fair).

Luckily there was no ‘interview’ involved, so the awkwardness stopped at band names. A lot of music was played that day. Maybe I wasn’t that bad, after all, they wouldn’t have put me on air if I was right? But it gave me a good reason to go away, practice, learn, and develop my own style — one which wasn’t a carbon copy of what I imagined someone should sound like on the radio. The most important thing for me was that I sounded genuine. That wasn’t too difficult to pull off because anything, and I mean anything, can intrigue me. I always say, someone who’s truly passionate about a subject has the ability to make everyone else passionate about it too — model train enthusiast or otherwise.

Often it’s easy to listen to the presenters and interviewers you like in order to get inspiration — but when someone’s doing something right, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what they’re doing right. Part of working in radio meant I had to listen to different presenters all the time, whether I liked the person’s interview style or not. But that was such an important part of helping me create my own style. If you want to start interviewing guests, and with the ever-increasing boom in podcasting, it’s quite possible you will, then try to do the following.

Let your guest speak. The worst of this is when people say “yeah”, “uhuh” and “mmm” in agreement to every point they make. That’s fine if you’re having a conversation with someone, but it’s unbelievably distracting when you’re listening to it. Your mind keeps getting thrown back to the presenter interjecting and it can make you lose track of what the guest is saying. It’ll feel unnatural at first, to just sit there silently, nodding away, but do it.

Don’t fill every silence. Sometimes your guest will be a slow talker. That’s okay (as long as that slowness doesn’t creep into becoming boring). Your job is to let them fill the silences they leave. Don’t ask another question if you think there’s more for them to say. They might be thinking about how to phrase it and you’re about to interrupt a great point. And if not, people naturally want to fill silences, so if you say nothing, they will — they won’t be able to help themselves. You want an interview to be 80% guest. You shouldn’t be responding after every sentence. If they’re going too far off-track though, or what they’re saying is getting boring, you can tactfully use an interruption or two — remember, it still needs to sound like a conversation.

And on that note — keep your questions short. No matter who you are, the interview is always about the interviewee. Short, concise questions is all that’s needed to prompt your guest. Anything too wordy, or too many questions wrapped into one will confuse them, and they’ll either give you a vague answer that misses the point, or they’ll ask you to repeat. This doesn’t mean you should have all your questions written down. In fact, I make sure I only ever take three to five questions into an interview, and I rarely look at them. If you want to make your chat sound like a conversation, rather than a Q&A, then make it a conversation. Ask questions that genuinely spring to mind, even if you write them down as the interview goes on so that you don’t forget them. Don’t come prepared with a list and end the conversation once the list runs out. Guests will always surprise you with what they have to say, and often there was nothing in your research to suggest they’d say it…you just have to roll with it. It’s unusual but people will often open up more on the radio or in a podcast than they ever do in normal conversation with friends — despite the fact that thousands of people are listening to them!

Put on a radio voice. I know that’s usually what people tell you NOT to do. And to a certain degree, I agree with them. You don’t want to force yourself to have an over-the-top, cringy, stereotypical radio personality, but you equally don’t want to talk in your normal voice. I say that because most people sound a little bit monotonous in their day-to-day speak. We can’t be excitable all the time, it would be annoying. But that’s what people want to hear when they’re listening to a broadcast. You need to develop a version of your voice that is more excited and a little bit louder than usual. You need to sound intrigued by everything. I move my arms around a lot when I speak into a microphone, but I don’t when I’m talking normally. It’s about injecting as much energy into it as possible — it’s a show, make sure you perform! Just be careful not to overdo it.

Write great introduction scripts. An introduction should not just be a run-down of your guest’s achievements. If you were about to interview famous bodybuilder Kai Greene, you could start by saying: I’d like to introduce you to IFBB pro bodybuilder, Mr Olympia runner up, actor, artist and personal trainer, Kai Greene. Green is 44 and has dedicated his life to fitness. He joins me now. Or you could start by saying: You know of bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger — now imagine someone even bigger, even freakier than that — with muscles the size of your head. What on Earth drives someone to take fitness to that extreme? Let’s find out — Kai Greene, former Mr Olympia competitor and actor joins me now. In my view the two are worlds apart. You want to ignite curiosity and intrigue in the listener. Ask them a question, make a bold statement…get them thinking. Once they’re hooked, they’ll stay with you. But if you bore them from the start, they might switch over before the good stuff begins.

Rehearse your script. Also, there’s no point in writing a great script without rehearsing it before you hit record or go live. Give it a few read throughs, and not just in your head — out loud! If you read it a few days before the interview, read it aloud again, right up to the last few moments before you start the interview. You don’t ever want to sound like you’re reading, and you definitely want to avoid tripping up over your words. It’s hard to get away from it entirely, but the more you can make a script sound said, not read, the better. And this is especially important if someone’s written the script for you. It might not be written in your style, so you’ll need to tweak it, or there might be a word you can’t pronounce, and you won’t figure that out if the first time you read it is when you go live. Scripts shouldn’t be long — three to five lines ideally. It takes no time to practice, and it makes a world of difference.

Friendly manner. And finally, and this should be a given but trust me, it still needs to be said…be friendly. Be genuinely interested in your guest when they arrive to meet you, before the tape starts rolling. Engage with them and make them feel welcome. They’re likely giving up their time for free to talk to you, and you should show appreciation for that. At the very least you’ll get a better interview out of someone who feels comfortable with you, and more than that, it’s just weird if you’re cold and detached off-air, and warm and friendly on-air…they’ll see right through you.

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