What makes a good interview? It’s a question that I’ve found myself asking since my first podcast back in March of 2008. Prior to that I was very comfortable speaking publicly, but not an individual who would have ever described himself as a conversationalist or an interviewer. Today, I would consider myself both but it was a skill I had to put in the time to find and I feel like I did the study to get what ability I cling to today.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I like to talk and I feel I’m pretty comfortable chiming in with an opinion on most topics. If you are a Charlie Tonic Hour listener, the proof is in the fact that I don’t tend to pre-research a lot of the topics we discuss. Okay, that may show at times but I think I hold my own chatting alongside the very intelligent and intellectually challenging Ginny Tonic (well, most of the time anyway). I’ve learned over the years that I can drop into a conversation and hold my own as long as deep, detailed facts or timelines aren’t required. I may not have all the answers but I think I can keep things interesting and when all else fails I whip out a bad joke or questionable innuendo and keep things rolling.
When it comes to interviews, I really found my style on the Related Recap podcast for Comic Related. It was a show I stared in 2008 and hosted for over 300 episodes before handing over the reigns to others. That show was, predominantly, an interview podcast where I would talk to indie and small press comic creators. As I worked to get comfortable being conversational, I built a show where I didn’t do edits. That forced me to think on my feet and work ahead of the actual conversation taking place. For most of those interviews I went into them with very few notes and no real pre-loaded questions. After a while I knew I could pull it off. Sure you would hear all the mis-steps and hiccups, but it was raw and something I wanted to do for that show. Here, at the Charlie Tonic Hour the audio is a lot more polished and clean.
So, in evolving my interview style I studied, pretty deeply two people who I respected for their conversational skills. They were Ira Glass (This American Life) and Terry Gross (Fresh Air). I learned something from each and though I know I will never be as good as they are, Ira and especially Terry are my heroes when it comes to doing this sort of thing.
What did I learn? Here are a few things I can share:
1) GET OUT OF THE WAY – In normal conversation we’re very comfortable making things our story. An interview isn’t your story and it’s important to let the person you’re talking to tell theirs. The real skill comes in knowing when to prompt them further but in the beginning be sure to hold back and just let them go. Sometimes they’ll guide you to places you never considered.
2) KNOW WHEN AND HOW TO GET IN THE WAY – It’s tempting to chime in with a personal story. Sometimes that can really help the conversation but it is important to make sure that the things you’re sharing adds to the interview building on what that person is saying. When you’re really shining, your story will run parallel with what they just said but diverge just enough that it leads them to take off in a new but related direction.
3) REALLY LISTEN AND ENGAGE – You’ve heard the phrase “active listening“? This is the time to put it into play. When doing an interview you need to be on your toes, completely attuned to what the other individual is saying and very present in the conversation. You don’t have to restate everything back but you need to be constantly on the edge of your seat listening for the next topic. The best interviews, in my opinion allow the conversation to dictate where the interview is headed. Terry Gross is a master at this. You can hear her framing questions around the last sentence and spinning things in new directions constantly.
4) BRING YOURSELF TO THE INTERVIEW – The very best interviewers bring their own story to the table in subtle ways. Knowing when and how (as mentioned in #2 above) is key, but when you can (especially if the interview is for a regular show or ongoing column), building a relationship with your listeners/readers by allowing them into your life through your stories adds a level of engagement that is unequaled. When the opportunity presents itself, hold as little back as you can but keep it brief and on point. Ira Glass, when he lets down his guard (which is quite often) is a master of knowing when to bring himself into the story. “It makes good tape” as he puts it.
6) MAKE IT A CONVERSATION – This is the holy grail. Terry and Ira do this so perfectly. When you are really winning at an interview, the person listening or reading should feel like they are at a really cool party and sitting just to the side of an amazing conversation between interesting people. It’s a combination of good conversation and relaxing into the chat. In my opinion, this is where you want to get and this is the mark of a successful interview. When you hit this point it also has the added bonus of making the person you are talking to feel comfortable. They’ll go to interesting places and the conversation can be as fun for you as your audience. In time, toss out all notes and just talk to the person you are interviewing.
These are the things that have worked for me. I’m hoping some of them work for you too and I welcome any advice you may have in the comments section below. Cheers!