Basic interviewing skill is one of the most important things an emerging media maker needs to learn. The best interviewers manage to balance natural conversation and allowing for spontaneity whilst providing enough structure to ensure a good story is told.
Research is often cited as key to any good interview – the better prepared and knowledgeable you are about a topic the better positioned you are to interrogate the topic and tell a good story. Unfortunately you don’t always have the resources for extensive research. I’ve done current affairs programs where breaking news happens and within minutes you have a guest on air on talking about a topic you haven’t thought about in months or years or music festivals where PR agents confirm an interview with minutes notice and you don’t even have internet access for sneaky research about an artist.
Regardless of whether you’ve had 5 minutes to prepare or 5 months to prepare for an interview I’ve always found basic story telling to be my saviour. Any basic story has a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s why I always aim to prepare questions and conduct interviews with the following structure:
PAST – Contextualise the interview.
Your first questions should help contextualise the interviewee or the topic for the audience. I do this by focusing on questions from the past. In a current affairs context this might be asking the guest for their recollection of an event or asking a musician to share what sparked their latest creation. Don’t assume the audience inherently holds this context or you risk alienating them from the very start.
PRESENT – Find the currency.
What makes this interview relevant to the audience right now? Once you and the interviewee have hooked the audience with a bit of backstory what’s the conflict or the point of interest most relevant to your audience right now? In current affairs this might be a question like “What are you doing to fix this issue right now?” or for a musician it might be sharing experiences on their current tour.
FUTURE – Come to a satisfying resolution.
All good stories must come to an end. What information can you draw out of your interviewee to come to a satisfying resolution? This is where you’ve contextualised the topic or interviewee, ascertained the relevance to the audience and you now need to help them to consider the future. In current affairs this could be asking what will happen to a community group who have lost funding or for a musician asking them about their next creative plans.
This structure has helped me to conduct thousands of interviews on a wide range of topics, but it should be made clear that it is just a framework. In many cases I’ve prepared a whole list of questions following this structure only to throw them aside and focus on more interesting and engaging parts of the conversation. Never forget that you are hosting a conversation – not just between you and your guest, but between you, your guest and your audience. All three must be considered equally.
My final suggestion is to treat every interview as though it’s a live one. Even if you’re conducting an interview with significant editing in mind treat the interview as if you are live on air or in front of an audience. Your raw interview should tell a powerful story without editing and be strong in its own right. Interviews are a performance – the better you perform in the initial performance the easier your job will be in the edit suite. You’ll thank yourself later.