I’m about to start interviewing people for my book with Julien Smith. We’re definitely planning to put our best foot forward on this, and as part of that, I’m looking into ways to be a better interviewer. Fortunately, I get to be the guest often. That’s a lot less difficult. Here I am being interviewed by the (very!) prepared Jim Canterucci.
We don’t always have to re-invent the wheel. There are some great interviewers out there doing amazing work. If you take a little bit of time to research how the pros do it, you can learn a lot. The trick is this: listen to or watch a full interview, and WRITE DOWN THE QUESTIONS and TOPICS covered. Then, go back and deconstruct what you just heard. Rate each question for how the guest answers, and whether or not the answer sung versus just flopped. Ask yourself whether it was the interviewer or the guest who could’ve done better.
Now, let’s look at some examples. Take out your notebooks and start picking this apart. Let’s look at how the pros do it, and see what we can take back.
Best of the Best
In my estimation, Terry Gross from NPR’s Fresh Air is the best in the business right now. You’re welcome to disagree. Here’s her body of work. You want to learn some great interviewing tips? Learn from Terry.
Learn from Larry
Larry King has several years of interviewing all kinds of world leaders. That can be easy. World leaders make world news. What about entertainers? That’s harder, more obscure (believe it or not). Look how Larry deals with entertainers. The lesson here? Research helps, but then, so does flexibility.
Here’s Larry interviewing Motley Crue:
Larry with Christina Aguilera:
Notice how he leads off. He gives a bit of their most recent bio. He does this thing where he says something like, “You’re doing this new thing. What got you started doing that? or Why do that?” That lets the guest go right into the thing they’re most passionate about. And that’s the good part.
Larry blows it in some of these interviews. He calls Christina a softer singer, which would be the opposite. But listen how he turns it around, and just lets it go past. That’s half Christina and half Larry. Look what Jerry Seinfeld does when Larry gets something wrong with him:
So, if you’re the guest, you have some power. If you’re the interviewer, steer that boat back out of the whitewater fast, or it could spin out of control.
What About Tricky Guests?
Another great interviewer was Johnny Carson. He did it a different way, and the show was essentially a series of promotions that could double as entertainment. But what you should learn from Johnny is velocity. Who better to test that with than Jim Carrey?
Okay, you just thought about Robin Williams as a rough guest. Here he is with Ellen:
Advice here? Go with it.
And Now for You
Lots of my blog posts end with questions. Do you know why? Because interviewers are very curious, and they want to hear from the other person. It’s a conversation, but it’s also a showcase of another person’s capabilities, ideas, and thoughts.
So now it’s your turn. What else can you tell us about interviews?