The Art of the Interview

by Dustin Dumas, Station Manager, SOMAtv, South Orange/Maplewood, NJ

Arguably, one of the most important responsibilities of an independent producer is getting a great interview. It may mean that, you, as the producer are wearing several hats…perhaps being the interviewer yourself or assisting the interviewer in creating a great interview.  Either way, there is definitely an art to getting the most from the interviewee.  I have touched on interviewing techniques in a previous column but due to its importance I would like to focus on it in this column.

Setting It up:  Let’s start with the setting.  The setting is important to a great interview because it shows your guest that you took time and thought about them before the interview.  The setting is not only having the studio prepared when your guest arrives but, if you are not in a studio, having the on-location site ready is also important.  For example, if you are shooting outside, the set up should be so that the sun is not in your guest’s eyes, if there is rain, there should be umbrellas or tents available.  If there is anything that you can do that will make your guest feel comfortable for a better interview, do it.

I vividly remember hosting a live outdoor festival and suddenly being asked to interview the person who had helped organize the event.  The producer never informed her that she would be interviewed but asked her on live TV to “say a few words,” just as she was passing the area set up for interviews.  She had been running around taking care of issues that had arisen during the event, was sweaty, wearing a baseball cap that was covering her matted hair, which she pulled even lower when she was put on the spot, and was wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  Besides catching her off guard by asking her to say a few words, she was extremely self-conscious of how she looked as she had been working. She graciously agreed to do the interview but when the producer told her to take off her hat because they could not see her face due to it being shaded by the sun, she refused.  They compromised and she flipped the bill of the hat up, which looked ridiculous. It was one of the most awkward interviews I have ever done.  The viewer was not able to learn of the great work she had done to create this event because she was embarrassed and gave monosyllabic answers so she could get out of the interviewee chair as quickly as possible.

Aside from not asking for an interview on the spot during a live segment, the producer could have prepared by having the chairs situated in a way so that she was not squinting into the sun, had a tent set up so that the sun was not an issue, had a mirror available and  provided water for guests.  All of these things could have helped this guest, and the ones who followed her, feel more comfortable.  But the most important thing that producer could have done would have been to ask her, privately, if she was available to be interviewed later, which gets me to the next section — preparing your guest.

Prepare Your Guest:  I like speaking to people and interviewing them but not everyone likes to be a guest or be interviewed.  Some may do it out of necessity and some may genuinely like talking about their subject matter.  However, as the producer, it is your responsibility to ensure that an interview achieves the goals of both the interviewer and interviewee.  One way of doing this is to let your guest get a feel for the questions you will ask by sending them potential questions. I do this with all of my guests because many have never been on television before and have no idea what to expect.  Seeing the types of questions and being able to prepare helps guests feel comfortable.  The more comfortable the guests are, the more candid and more conversational the interview will be.  I always let my guests know that these questions are a starting point, that we will deviate and may not get to them all.  The other great thing about sending questions in advance is that it gives your guests an opportunity to submit questions they would like to be asked.  This goes back to making sure that the goals of the interviewer and interviewee are achieved.  If you are worried about the guest being over prepared and having rote answers to questions, I have never found that to be the case.  Part of being a good interviewer is being able to follow up answers with appropriate questions, and not simply following a list of prepared questions.

Avoid Pre-Interview Conversations:  While I am adamant about sending questions to guests before an interview, I am just as adamant about not having pre-conversations with guests about the things I will cover during the interview.  I am fine with speaking with them and allaying any fears they may have and answering general questions, but I have found that extensive pre-interview conversations definitely take the excitement and the candor out of the actual interview.  Unfortunately, I know this from experience.

Years ago, I had a guest who wanted to talk about her memoir weeks before the show.  Her story was compelling and I felt it would be both accessible and relatable to our audience.  However, she was uncomfortable with being on television, as she felt she would not come across well.  At first, she insisted that I come to her house and do a pre-interview and once I told her that would not be possible, we agreed upon a telephone call.  During the telephone call, she wanted to go over each question and, basically wanted to conduct the interview over the phone.  Fortunately, I was able to end the conversation before we went too far.  Once she arrived at the station, the interview went well but it was not as powerful as it could have been.  Some of the things that she shared over the phone were remarkable but were not mentioned during the actual interview, even with some subtle prodding.  I have also seen this happen when the host and guest chat too much about the subject matter before the show starts and forget some of the pertinent things that would have been great to reveal on camera rather than before the cameras started rolling.  These are some of the reasons that pre-interview conversations should be kept to a minimum and, ideally, should not cover the topics to be discussed.

Setting up the space, preparing your guests and avoiding pre-interview conversations are a few of the ways to make your guests feel comfortable and elicit the most candid and useful responses in an interview.  Using the techniques above may garner that one response you were not expecting that made all of the preparation worth it.

Dustin Dumas is the host and producer of Dustin’s Kaleidoscope and What’s Up Around Town. She is the station manager of the award-winning South Orange Maplewood Television station (SOMAtv) and serves as Vice Chair on the Jersey Access Group, External Relations Committee. She has been part of community television stations in Illinois, California and New Jersey and enjoys helping people tell their stories.