Thursday, 27 October 2011

Seven Ways To Set Your Interviewee At Ease

The following is a brief excerpt from my ebook How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else.  It comes fairly early on in the book, which aims to give advice on the whole process of interviewing from start to finish.  Here goes...

1. Your greeting is important.  I like to greet interviewees as if I already know them – obviously without being overly familiar.  It’s about creating the pleasant atmosphere of greeting friends and being pleased to see them.  Making an effort.  Generally, appearing pleased to see them will help ensure that they’re at least halfway pleased to see you too.

2. Don’t rush to start your recording device.  Take your time.  Relax.  You don’t need to record that pre–amble banter.  Master the art of casually chatting and smiling a lot, exuding excitement to be here, while getting the device out of your bag and setting it up on the table.

3. Without wanting to get into the esoteric realm of positive and negative energy, it’s fairly obvious that the energy you inject into that room is likely to be reciprocated by your subject.  If they’ve been sitting in a room all day talking about themselves and their work, causing their eyelids to feel heavy, then an enthusiastic, friendly journalist entering the room might help snap them back into something like full consciousness.  If you’re excited – without resembling a tiresomely yapping Yorkshire terrier – then they’re more likely to feel the same.  Excited interviewees talk more.

4. Quickly work out whether they’re the kind of person who will respond well to direct, sustained eye contact throughout, or will be uneasy if you continuously hold their gaze. Do whatever makes them feel the most comfortable, and their tongue will loosen as a result. As a rule of thumb, if they instantly make eye contact, then follow suit.  Otherwise, apply eye contact in small–to–medium doses.  Eye contact is powerful.  It can establish trust, but at the other end of the scale it can intimidate or feel oppressive.  Remember: no matter how confident and self–possessed the subject may appear in front of an audience, or on film, in person they could be the shyest person you ever met.

5. Very much bear in mind that your interviewee is a human being, with moods and a personal life, just like you.  If they’re difficult or grouchy, then bear in mind that you might have just caught them on an off–day.  Try not to take it personally, and instead focus your efforts on brightening them.  Or, at the very least, just getting the job done.  More on this later when we discuss The Angry Clam.

6. Towards the end of that opening pre–amble, mention how long a time–slot you have with them.  They may not know.  By telling them, you give them a sense of perspective on how long you’ll be spending together – and roughly speaking, how fast the conversation should go.  If you’ve an hour together, they can relax a little more and perhaps speak at length.  If it’s just a ten–minute quickie, they’ll get the message that they’ll need to be more concise and probably talk a bit faster.

7. It can often be a good idea to broadly and swiftly outline your aims for this piece.  This will help relax them if, for instance, they fear you have some kind of negative agenda.  Tell them that you really want to present the most informative and entertaining profile of them as a person yet.  Or that you really want to document how they’ve bounced back, after that regrettable incident with the prostitutes and the crack cocaine.

Note: there is an alleged eighth way, but I wouldn’t personally recommend it.  That’s why I’ve reserved it for this note at the end.  I’ve heard about journalists who go out of their way to fake some kind of personality defect – a stutter, for instance – perhaps in order to make them seem like less of a threat and/or to make themselves more likeable.

I wouldn’t recommend this for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, it’s a bit crazy.  Secondly, if you can’t do it well it will inevitably come across like the world’s biggest and most ludicrous contrivance.  Still, if you fancy giving it a shot… whatever works.

How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else is out now for Kindle on Amazon UK, Amazon US and, where you can download the first few pages to your wireless device for free. It packs in 28,000 words of advice, drawn from my 23 years' experience of interviewing people.  You can also get a Triple Pack of file formats (PDF, ePub, Kindle/mobi) direct from me.  Full details here, you splendid individual.

"I'm very glad I bought it; having just re-entered the world of writing (I lost my way in my teenage years!). It has given me confidence and techniques to go about better journalistic interviewing and writing, and I hope to employ what I've learnt when writing for my university newspaper and website!  Thank you - very great value for money!" - Imogen Watson

"I've just done my first music interview, and I don't think it would have gone even marginally as well if I hadn't read this ebook first.  I'm starting out in the big bad world of journalism with zero formal journalistic qualifications under my belt, so help like this is utterly invaluable.  Every budding journo should buy this book" - John Nugent


  1. I'm not a journalist - I work in corporate - but I wanted to say that this is damn good advice for any business meeting, workshop or training.

  2. Very practical and full of good common sense, it really is about putting the interviewee at ease. Thanks for the good handy tricks of the trade here.