10 Tips for Interview Style
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
Always behave like a duck - keep calm and unruffled on the surface, but paddle like the devil underneath.
– Jacob Braude
To say the right thing at the right time, keep still most of the time.
– John W. Roper
When I really feel like dancing, I want someone who knows how to lead.
– Peter Stamm
While huddled in pubs or chatting away in restaurants and cafes (before Covid-19) we often had great conversations. It's not difficult. For the most part, it is pretty intuitive. But... when you put a microphone in front of your face, put a microphone in front of someone else's face, start setting up recording gear, start thinking about your next question... anyway, you get my drift. One important thing to keep in mind is that a recorded interview is not a normal conversation. You are asking questions to appease your own curiosity but you also need to keep your finger on the pulse of the audience. I'm not an expert by any means, but I've gotten some good feedback from listeners about my interview style. So without further ado, here are my 10 Tips for Interview Style:
1) Focus on the writing
The publication is the core of the episode - that's why we name each episode after the citation. Here is where the fun starts. First, I read the citation for myself, and jot down any questions I had, or if I felt something needed more explanation. Then I'll read it again and write down any questions for the general audience (i.e. listeners who may not specialize in that particular research area). On the third read, I'm looking for good pub topics (e.g. the theory of universal emotions, the F.B.I., the Olympics, etc.). After three reads I have a pretty good feel for the author's writing style, previous research history, general concepts in his/her concentrated research field, and some good pub topics.
2) Focus on the writer
After multiple reads, I'll try to learn as much as I can about the author. You can get this information from a variety of places online (e.g. the researcher's home page, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, Research Gate, Academia, etc.). For example, when prepping for David Matsumoto (Citation 5), I learned that he was born in Hawaii, did his Bachelors at the University of Michigan, and his Masters and Ph.D. in Berkley. Already I'm seeing some good pub topics here (e.g. weather, food, city, motivations to move, etc.). These may or may not connect with his research. As an interviewer, you should be looking for these.
I stick to this process (i.e. read the paper first, then learn about the researcher) to stay objective about the writing. Remember, the core of the episode is the writing, but the most interesting aspects of the interview may come from the writer's personal/research history. I keep a notebook and prep every interview pretty much the same way. Every guest has a dedicated page of notes. A guest like David Matsumoto (Citation 5) has a long and illustrious career. There's no way you could discuss his entire research history and life experiences in one hour. But the fact is, you don't have to.
3) Structured Improvisation
At this point, you've done the prep on the writing and the writer. You have a lot of notes, hopefully you've identified some interesting gaps and you have some good questions to ask (and some good pub topics in your back pocket). Some people like to script out the order of questions, but I think this is a bad idea. People don't want to listen to a scripted interview but we also don't want to hear a conversation go way off-topic. As interviewers, how do we find the happy medium? My interview style is structured improvisation. Looking at my page of notes before an interview, I know the conversation can go in a number of ways. In regards to structured improvisation, I think Ray Charles said it best, "I'm unable to sing any song the same way twice".
4) Choose your own adventure
When I was a kid I used to love Choose your own adventure books. Do you remember those? You had to make a choice in the story and depending on your choice, you turned to a designated page in the book and continued on your way. This was exciting. Your choices directly impacted the characters.
It was only a matter of time until this medium emerged in pop culture. Like most, I was pumped when Black Mirror released Bandersnatch.
If you are into CYOA content, then you probably have the right stuff to be an interviewer. Just remember, the writing is the core of the episode, but you can take some excursions if you want.
5) Moving past the brick wall
You are going along, having a nice conversation, letting it flow. You decide to follow a storyline that veers away from the core of the episode (in radio speak we call this a "sidebar"). Ok, cool - let's do this. Just remember two things...
1. Don't end up like a character in Dark who goes WAY off course because...
2. You want to come back home.
Not to be too repetitive, but it is worth mentioning again that a recorded conversation is not a normal conversation. No one wants to hear the host say, "oh I forgot how we got here" or "what were we talking about?" You are driving the tour bus so it's your job to get us where we need to go.
Adam Carolla has some great career advice that is actually a good metaphor for being a radio host. Essentially, he says that you are in a train (your career) and you need to keep laying track ahead of you. When you start on a sidebar keep anticipating the distance –– it can't last forever. Start estimating when you see it coming to an end. Once you see the brick wall coming, you have two options:
1) Tie it back to what you were talking about before the sidebar.
2) Do a "reset".
The first option is much more difficult, and usually, I don't even try. It means that you are listening for a tie-in somewhere and simultaneously aware that the sidebar is approaching the brick wall. This is really tough. For the most part, I always go with Option 2 because it is easier, more organic, and you can let the sidebar run its course. You could say something simple like, "ok, let's jump back into the publication. Today we are discussing (read citation)". Boom. Easy. You've reset the conversation and promoted the guest's work.
6) Find the content nuggets
Remember how I said that a recorded conversation is not a normal conversation? Sometimes you need to listen for yourself, and sometimes you need to listen for the audience. Either way, occasionally you are going to need to ask the guest for more detail. First things first: trust your gut. If you are curious and/or you think the audience needs more detail you can easily jump in and ask. Here are a few examples...
Here is a near perfect interview with Jon Hamm. He shares the story of how he was cast for AMC's Mad Men. Jon Hamm is both magnetic and a great storyteller (i.e. the perfect guest). In cases like these, your job is to back WAY off and don't get in the way. However, this task is not as easy as it seems. You almost need to concentrate twice as hard to know when to jump in and speak for yourself (or the audience). Listen here how the interviewer jumps-in, doesn't break the flow, and asks the perfect question:
Hamm: ... so it's getting more and more daunting. But, I still felt very confident in my... not only ability... but just the fact that I was very right for the part."
Jon Hamm is telling a great story and the interviewer could have jumped in multiple times to ask more detail. But she understands flow and she let him tell a great story. At a certain point her curiosity is really piqued. Sure, Jon Hamm would have still told a great story without the interviewer, but we would have missed out on a great nugget.
Here's another instance of an interviewer jumping in at the right time and grabbing a content nugget. In Todd Buecken's recent interview with Dr. Robert Waring (Citation 29), he jumps in and gets some extra information (2:30). This was in the beginning of the interview, which I think is worth noting. Don't feel like you have to wait - if something piques your curiosity, go for it.
Here, Waring is discussing one of the chapters in his book.
Waring: "The next chapter is about how vocabulary is learned from extensive reading... and this is to help teachers understand the process of vocabulary acquisition from extensive reading... there's quite a bit of confusion about this, so we wanted to clarify that."
Todd: "So, um, how is there confusion about vocabulary acquisition and reading?"
This was brilliant - so kudos to Todd for having good radio instincts (especially on his first go as a contributing interviewer!). At this stage in the interview, Robert Waring was giving a brief synopsis of the book. Todd could have easily let the guest keep going but his interest was piqued and he found a great content nugget.
Regardless of how many email conversations you may have had before the interview, let's be honest, the rapport process truly begins from the second you start talking. In my view, the best interviewers tactically steer the conversation with the least amount of words possible. Unfortunately though, our guests won't always be like Jon Hamm. This next section will provide some tips on how to have a conversation with anyone...
The first thing I try to do is gauge the guest's sense of humor. Your guest may have (a) a very different sense of humor than you and/or (b) a different way of communicating humor. Again, this isn't really that intuitive, but it's the first thing I do. Establishing the guest's sense of humor can really help you manage the interview. For example, in the beginning of Chris Haswell's interview with Annette Bradford (Citation 26) he demonstrates a shared sense of humor and guides the conversation with a natural laugh (2:36). This might seem blatantly simple, but it is really important.
Speaking of humor, it is good to find out if there is anything the guest is uncomfortable talking about. I'm pretty direct about this. Before we start recording I'll ask, "Is there any question you don't want me to ask or is there any topic you are uncomfortable talking about?"
Usually (not always) this will save you an unexpected awkward moment where you potentially offend your guest. If you offend your guest, the interview is pretty much over –– they'll become tense and uncomfortable. Probably obvious, but I guess I should explicitly say it: avoid offending your guest at all cost. That's not our style of show. We want guests who feel comfortable to share their research and (if they want) life experiences.
You should allow for at least 15 minutes before an interview to establish rapport. Of course you don't need to use all of that time, but allow yourself that time because it will be better for everyone. If you establish a rapport 15 minutes into the taped interview, everyone has already stopped listening.
Ok, so you've given yourself 15 minutes to establish rapport. What should you do? Listen for their cadence (e.g. voice volume, sentence length, emphasis, etc.). For example, Simon Humphries (Citation 7) and Jim King (Citation 27) have similar cadences. When talking to your guests, you should try to match their speed and atmosphere. Why? Well, like I said before, the best tool in the interviewer's tool shed is to jump-in at precisely the right moment. Being aware of a guest's cadence will help you gauge when someone has ended a sentence or thought. The most important thing is to keep the conversation flowing - try not to talk over each other.
Ok, so that's pretty much it: humor, topics to avoid, and cadence. Simple as it sounds, it can be challenging when you are simultaneously recording the show and being the host. Most professionals have a producer who runs the recording and sound levels (but we don't have that luxury). In a future blog I'll give you some tips on how to manage the recording process. Ok, now that you have established rapport with your guest, time to concentrate on filler words you should avoid.
8) Filler words to avoid
This is subjective and there may be other words that bother you, but from my experience, professional broadcasters avoid the word "like". The main reason is because "like" has a lot of meanings, and most of us don't realize how often we are using it as a verbal crutch. If you need some help weeding yourself off "like", check out this webpage.
Uh and Um are commonly used when silence could suffice. Basically is a filler word that doesn't mean anything (in a pinch, essentially sounds way better). In my show notebook, I methodically cross out words I dislike. This reminds me to not say them.
9) Any feedback is good feedback
Feedback means that someone took the time to (a) listen all the way through, (b) think about what they listened to and then (c) take the time to write you. I heard that most radio stations - even in the height of the ratings boom (late 90s) only had about a 2% listener engagement. That means that the host only interacted with a fraction of the audience. So when the famous DJ said, "the lines are locked and loaded" or "we got lots of mail this week", they were only referring to a relatively small sample size...
10) If it's good, we'll keep listening
For most listeners, an interview can easily be categorized as one of the following:
(a) Worth my time.
(b) Not worth my time.
Let's be honest –– with all the entertainment options available these days, people don't need to make a detailed critique. If it's good, we'll keep listening.