Simple and effective interviews

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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.


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Self deprecation and media making

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One of the most common things I come across in emerging media makers is a fairly consistent stream of self deprecation. On a daily basis I watch, hear and read emerging media makers joke about how “unprofessional” they are or how “shit” they think their own content is. Some of my favourite television makers, radio broadcasters and writers manage to deftly balance considered wit with self deprecation and it can be really powerful/hilarious – but too often emerging media makers rely on self deprecation to manage their nervousness/anxieties and come off worse for it.

It’s good to be open and honest with your audience (in fact vital for establishing a connection with them), but when your content becomes more focused on reminding your audience how rough, raw, zany or chaotic you are you risk forgetting the one thing that people come to you for – content.

What often confuses emerging media makers is that much of the best media sounds “off the cuff”, “in the moment” and natural, but the truth is that a lot of hours and hard work goes into even the most casual sounding content by professional media makers.

Personality driven content has become extremely popular in recent times, but this is way too often confused by new media makers as a message to focus on personality fetishisation and forgetting about making good content. The assumption is too often that you can walk into a studio without preparation and your stellar personality and talent will do the rest. The problem with this mindset is that it shows a significant ignorance for what goes on behind the scenes of the big media personalities – hard work. Most of the big media names work long hours or have teams behind them tightly planning and curating good content. A raucous, zany or controversial personality might be an initial drawcard, but people stay because the content is good.

When you haven’t planned enough or haven’t put the effort into understanding your audience that’s when you’re most likely to rely on self deprecation for a cheap laugh, but unless you get it right it does more damage to your content and your reputation than anything else. That’s not to say self deprecation is necessarily a bad thing – it can make for hilarious content, but very few people have the talent or the skill to get it right.


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