Tips to Being a Great Interviewer

Posted on by Larry

The ink was barely dry in the web browser of my post on how to be a great interview guest, when Michael Cox wrote a reply on how to be a great interviewer. While I don’t agree with all his suggestions – and I’ll let you know my concerns – this is a good list that I wanted to share with you.

By the way, the tips in my original article were created for an audio interview, while Michael’s list assumes you are shooting video.

Dear Larry,

I couldn’t agree with you more about interviewing. Now, while I am not talking to people who are pushing a particular product (they are artists or curators for [my] project) I think your ten rules are worth printing and posting in lots of offices. I always prepare my subjects by telling them “this will be a conversation, just me, my camera, and you” and that if they say anything that they feel was inappropriate or clumsy, we can just retake it. I’m not out to crucify anyone–in fact, I have used your exact line of it “not being 60 Minutes”!

I believe, on the flip side, that there are some rules or tips on being a great INTERVIEWER, and if you’d like to post them, please do so with my blessing. (If you do, would you please include the vimeo link below?)

Larry adds: In spite of the temptation of simplicity of shooting and interviewing as a one-man-band, the content of your interviews will ALWAYS be better if one person concentrates on asking questions, while another concentrates on the tech. Every time. Always.

Larry adds: This is the reason for my earlier note.

Larry adds: While true, this is not an option for live interviews.

Larry adds: Nothing beats planning! Writing questions to structure your thoughts is a GREAT idea.

Larry adds: This is the only point with which I strongly disagree. My experience is that almost all guests – given the opportunity – will try to memorize their answers and totally fail. This creates stiff, unreal, awkward answers. I often share the general area of my questions, but I never share questions in advance. And, if I don’t like an answer, or feel that the answer was not smooth enough, I’ll ask the same question but in a different way – spontaneity is ALWAYS better then perfection.

Michael Cox
Graduate Liberal Studies
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Simon Fraser University

“Public Art | Private Views” exploring art in public spaces
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4 Responses to Tips to Being a Great Interviewer

  1. Mark Fusco says:

    Thanks for posting this. Along with your article on interviews, both of these in combination will create a much smoother and better quality interview. I’m another “one man band” operation, so I try to have as much planning done as possible.

    I do several types of interviews. I’ll do Skype wine tastings, straight Skype interviews, winery visits, and in the field interviews with Somms, restaurant owners, etc. Each situation is different and the amount of time my subject has varies. With each, though I do try to at least do a rundown of what we will be doing prior to recording. For everything other than winery visits this is a quick talk about how the video will progress and what I’m looking for. Ultimately they are told they are the star of the show. For wineries I have them give me a tour of the property first and I effectively do a pre-interview with them. This allows me to steer the conversation towards interesting stories or subjects.

    This is due to the nature of my show not having multiple takes. Not something that works for many situations, but since I’m normally talking about something being consumed on the spot, I feel editing the content potentially takes away from true first impressions and spontaneity.

    I love the newsletter. I seem to gain something from each one.


  2. Jeff Wingo says:

    I absolutely agree 1000% with Larry on the last point. I have done hundreds of interviews and NEVER, NEVER give the interviewee the questions. It will ruin the interview. They will either try to memorize perfect sounding answers, like Larry says, or worse, bring in a cheat sheet that they look at and rattle around the whole time.

  3. Francis says:

    Larry is spot on with the last point. You should never, ever give questions to an interviewee. Whilst a trying to get the best out of a subject you also need to keep them slightly on their toes, thinking hard and not over secure. Giving them a general overview is one thing, but giving them questions beforehand is not advisable at all. It will mean they are shocked and possibly annoyed if you throw in a curve ball. Polite curve ball questions often elicit the best response. They will also attempt the answer a few times and you will lose all spontaneity.

    Larry’s point about asking the same question but in another manner, is also great advice.

    I would also add that early on (and we are talking about recorded interviews) it’s good to fire some questions that you know for sure you won’t be using the answers to. You make the questions appear serious, real and important, whilst knowing you won’t use the answers. All interviewees no matter how good they are, need and deserve some verbal warm ups.

  4. Rhett Murphy says:

    Larry does make a good point on that last point, but don’t discount Michael’s intention: let them feel prepared and involved. I’ll share a few questions or very broad questions in advance. The interviewee will feel prepared (and more relaxed), but they won’t have an opportunity to prepare a “script.”

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