The art of interviewing – This is war! And I’m not joking.
“Doing an interview” for either radio, television or the written press, is so often regarded as a simple thing. I (the starry, celebrity, or maybe hapless, newby interviewer) sit here. You (the starry, celebrity or, perhaps, unwitting, ordinary-member-of-the-public interviewee) sit there. I ask questions. You tell me the answers. Three minutes of air time filled. Job done. If it’s NCA (news and current affairs) there may be a some glossy extras… I have a few “But surely?” or, “Many will say…” interjections. You have a couple of disarming, distraction ploys, as in: “Well, actually, that’s not entirely true..” or, “In fact, statistics show that…”.
Attempts at cornering are satisfied, the challenge repulsed with minimal loss of face. The public and, sadly, many an inexperienced reporter may suppose that valid information pours out as long as you keep the interrogatives rolling. I am here to tell you this is not, and never has been true and that in this PR-soaked media world, you’d better shape up fast. Understand this: it is war!
Well, OK, if that’s too frightening for the wannabes and pacifists, look on it as the most demanding, high-level chess game you’ll ever encounter.
And, no, I am not talking only of NCA interviews. I am referring to every squashy-cushion, mid-morning spectacle, every children’s hour ho-ho chat, every single two-way, wherever it happens, for whatever outlet. You may disagree with this last, but you’d be wrong. Every single interview has a purpose, a milieu, an audience, a subtext, a history. It requires research, preparation and thought – admittedly in varying degrees, dependent on the situation. Every interview deserves this. If it doesn’t, why are you doing it? New information and explanation must be wrung from every sentence. Both sides must understand that. If they don’t, they fail and the interview probably should not be happening at all.
So, as Siobhan Sharpe, the PR advisor in BBC’s “W1A” would say, “Here’s the thing” : Why are you both sitting, facing each other? The PR handout, the tabloid so-called exclusive, the politician’s rumour mill, the editor’s daily diary item reminders, are not enough. They may have alerted you to the potential for a tale, but they are just the starting point. What, precisely, do you want to know? What must be the outcome? Think about it before you start. This, in military strategy parlance, is the “reconnaissance”.
Prepare your questions in a logical order, anticipating the responses. If you’ve done your research, you will know in advance what is likely to be said. This means, if necessary, you can help the interviewee to explain, you can empathise and test the arguments. It also means you can perform your “immediate ambush drill” and have the evidence to hand for a “counter ambush drill”.
Wherever possible, write your questions down so you don’t get way-laid by distraction strategies devised by PR guys or henchmen. And whatever happens, don’t suppose that an interview about a children’s book or a sporting achievement is any less deserving of this effort than a 2-way with the President. Your job is to inform your audience whoever they are – parents, pop fans, or politicians. You can only do that if they listen and nobody listens if what they hear is prevaricating, duplicitous, or uninspired. And let me assure you, interviews of that nature flow over your ears every day. Unlike me (the interview addict), you probably don’t dismember them to discover whether they were actually worth the air time. You just zone out, talk over it and forget it.
If it’s a major Newsnight style investigation it’s the “Four Fs” you must employ. No not those four Fs! I mean: Find, Fix, Flank and Finish. Find the subject. Pin it down. Gather the evidence all around and then eliminate all enemy doubters. Incidentally, don’t get carried away and leave your morals behind. For example, you should only in specific instances use the military concept of “Shoot and scoot” – firing questions from one position and then swiftly changing to another without a right of reply. It’s a method all too often used quite unnecessarily by interviewers who want instant glory on the battle field regardless of extending human knowledge. It’s also a tactic used against journalists by well-trained politicians and evil doers, intent on blowing your interview to bits. However, the shoot and scoot might be a suitable weapon when you know for sure that your sullen and recalcitrant interviewee is indeed a criminal. You can then reveal your widespread evidence in a flurry of leaked reports, witness statements and secret footage. I’ve found it works.
Just remember that no-one leaves the battlefield without helping the wounded – whatever side they’re on. Even a funny, jokey interview can be tough for the uninitiated. Post-interview, a reassurance that it was a job well done. A cup of tea. Exchange of contacts. I once gave a top company executive a real rottweilering live on Radio 4. Afterwards, he actually thanked me for being determined enough to raise the issues that he would never have broached himself (his company would have shot him in friendly fire!) but which he fully admitted afterwards needed to be addressed. Far from being massacred he fought an honourable battle and lived. His customers better understood his predicament and possibly even admired his courage.
And if you think you can manage all this strategising, wait until you are in a skirmish with a 7 year old who won’t answer anything because they’re struck dumb by the microphone. Now that is another campaign altogether….
About the Author
Janet Trewin is broadcaster, lecturer , media trainer, and author of “Presenting on TV and Radio. An Insider’s Guide”.