This latest installment in our occasional “6 Questions” series, we’re talking about a basic format for content, the interview.
Interviews are a very powerful tool for any content marketer. Why?
- The personal tone makes interviews compelling.
They give the reader or listener the feeling of being an insider, as if they’re witnessing the interaction. And the opportunity for point/counterpoint tension keeps them interesting.
- The dialog format makes interviews as accessible.
As audio, listening to a conversation is the most natural thing in the world. And as text, an interview as scan-able as a list post.
- The networking opportunities are excellent.
Very few people declined to be interviewed, especially if you make the process easy for them. So it gives the marketer a creative, collaborative reason to approach all kinds of people.
So interviews should be in the mix of any pro content marketer. But let’s do it right. In this post, we’ll turn the tables and interview some of the great interviewers. Let’s see what we can learn from these pros…
Kerry interviews C-level executives, authors, entrepreneurs, and social media stars each week for Marketing Smarts, the MarketingProfs podcast.
Bill hosts his own show on WGN Radio, where for many years he interviews at least 15 people every week. Bill also provides presentation training through his consultancy, Bill Moller Communications.
As the host of the weekly podcast Content Marketing 260 Radio Show, Pamela interviewed more than 200 thought leaders. She is also the Principal of Next Stage Media Group, a consultancy focused on developing audio content.
As the host and co-founder of BlogcastFM, Srini has interviewed more than 400 bloggers, authors and entrepreneurs.
Ben is a radio journalist and a producer for the public radio program This American Life.
Mark hosts The Interview Show, a live talk show held the first Friday each month at The Hideout in Chicago and twice a year at Union Hall in Brooklyn.
How do you prepare for interviews?
KERRY: Depends on the guest. If I’m talking with an author about his or her book, I read the book, highlight points of interest, and look at other interviews they’ve done so I don’t cover too much of the same ground.
If the guest is a CEO, CMO, or other professional, I focus on the topic we’ll be discussing. For instance, I spoke with Amy Maniatis of National Geographic, and asked her about how publishing is changing, as well as how they use emerging platforms like Instagram. I try to find an area in which the guest (or their organization) is really exceptional, and get some applied insights that would most help the MarketingProfs audience.
Sometimes, I choose a guest especially for a particular topic, like when I had Jason Falls of CafePress talk about cause marketing, and what CafePress does for Autism Awareness month. In each case, preparation varies in terms of what sources I consult, and whether I focus on the person, the organization, or a book, but the constant is that I always prepare!
BILL: Research is paramount. It’s important to read the website, the articles, the book (or scan it mostly). I don’t write out questions but have a sense as to what I’m going to ask. It’s important to let your curiosity direct you as well as listening to the conversation for new and interesting paths to follow. Each question should try to answer something interesting to me.
PAMELA: My current show, Content Marketing 360, allows me to interview the best and brightest in the content marketing industry. I research the guest (books, blog, presentations) and work with them to choose the topic that works best for their expertise. I use Formstack to gather pertinent details from my guest such as contact information, photo, logo, bio, and social information for promotion. I use an outline format vs. a strict list of questions. I frame my interviews in three segments and send the outline to my guest a few days prior to recording our interview. The outline format allows me to actively engage with my guest and create more of a “fireside chat” format. I then use the first few minutes of my call with the guest to let them know what to expect, answer any questions they have and add any last minute details they want to share.
SRINIVAS: I will usually just read somebody’s about page and I might dig through their a few of their latest blog posts. If they have a book out or something big that’s just been released I’ll do a quick glance at it. I try not to do much research because I find that it kills my curiosity and creativity. I don’t recommend this for everybody, but it works for me.
BEN: If time permits, I try to do quite a bit of reporting before most of my interviews. I try do thorough background reporting so that I understand the bigger ideas and tensions at work. I like to understand my interviewees role in whatever it is I’m reporting on — but also have a sense of their feelings about it, and their angle. I find that helps me steer our taped interview towards moments and interactions that are interesting. I also, if at all possible, pre-interview people. In radio, it matter so much more if people are what we call “good talkers” — just meaning that they’re fun to listen to. It could be that they tell good stories, or are funny, or have a nice accent — but there are people you want to listen to, and people who are hard to listen to. If someone’s hard to listen to, they can be in your story, but their tape will be working against you.
MARK: Research, as others here have said. That mostly involves reading a lot, but I also like talking to people who know the interviewee well. I do write out a bunch of questions, but I never look at them once the interview starts. They’re partly a way for me to prepare and find a loose narrative that I think the interview could follow … and partly a security blanket. I also think it’s important to have an interesting “way in” to the interview. Maybe you begin with something topical, maybe you begin with an intriguing but incomplete thought your interviewee voiced in another context, or maybe it’s something you learned about the interviewee that you’re pretty sure not many people know. In general, the more knowledge of the interviewee you come in with, the more likely chance that two things will happen: 1) you can have an intelligent, respectful conversation and 2) you’ll gain the interviewee’s trust or respect and he or she will feel freer to open up to you.
What is the best question you can ask as an interviewer?
KERRY: A question that the guest isn’t expecting. The questions that get an author or a practiced speaker “off book” bring out the answers that the audience will enjoy most.
BILL: A question that answers why-should-I-care as to what you’re talking about. It’s also critical to ask questions that elicit stories from guests.
PAMELA: One of the value propositions for my show is that I want to ensure my audience gets a solid action item or two that they can use in their business right away. So I do ask each of my guests that final question: What is one or two items that the audience can use in the next 24 hours to improve their marketing or business?
SRINIVAS: I don’t think there’s one magic question that stands out above the rest. The best questions are actually built based on the person’s answers. I don’t script any of my interviews. The formula for me is as follows:
Question =>Answer => Question about the Answer
The key to doing this however is to be a good listener. I recommend shutting everything down other than Skype or your phone. You can’t do this effectively if you’re distracted by tweets and status updates.
BEN: Gosh. I think this depends so much on the story and the person. In a general way, I think, “How did you feel, or do you feel, about that?” — that’s pretty good. I know it’s generic. But we’re emotional beings. I think whether we’re hearing a business story, or a human interest story, emotion and reflection are the things that allow us to engage with what’s in front of us. So maybe my answer is whatever question helps to get at the feelings of the interviewee, or allows the interviewer to interact with them in a way that reveals emotion and feeling. If I can add one more, “Really?” is a close second. So often I think, in news and otherwise, interviewees say things that are confusing, or weird, or outright lies — and the interviewer doesn’t touch it — it just flies by. I think there’s always a totally polite way to ask, “Really? What do you mean by that?” or, “Do you really feel that way?” and often that serves the story and the audience.
MARK: The main key is that the interview is a conversation, so the best questions continue/further the conversation. That comes, as Srinivas said, from listening. It’s also obviously good if, whatever you ask, it’s clear you are genuinely curious about the answer.
What do you do to keep control over the time and topics?
KERRY: Topics tend to take care of themselves. If a guest has pitched MarketingProfs to do the podcast, the topics are set in advance. For authors, it’s a given that what we discuss will somehow relate to the book (at least tangentially). If I pitch the guest, I pitch the topic, as well.
In terms of time, I have a digital clock on the shelf next to me. As soon as I ask the first “real” question, I know I have 30 minutes maximum to wrap up the conversation. Once I hit the 27-minute mark, I choose a question I think will end the interview on a high note, then hope for a great response!
BILL: Whether it’s a 180 second television interview or a 2-hour single topic/single guest radio conversation you have to frame questions that follow a narrative flow within the necessary time limits. The conversation is a story too that must have a beginning, middle and end. The more time you have, the more latitude you have to range from the essential questions and to knock on doors to pursue smaller nuggets of truth.
PAMELA: I actually record each of my interviews separately from the running of the full podcast episode. This allows me to work with my guest in scheduling the time that works great for both of us. I frame the recording of the interview to take about 30-40 minutes, but ask my guest to set aside a full hour so we are not rushed. This allows me to ensure that my full episode stays within the 50-60 minute timeframe that I shoot for on each of them.
SRINIVAS: I set an hour time limit. I also don’t have any guests on my show won’t give me an hour. I will actually pass on a really high profile guest if they’re unwilling to give me an hour. Sometimes I’ll let people keep speaking if they’re over because what they’re saying is so good. In terms of topics, I kind of have a start and end and then I just draw the map as I go. I build bridge between one topic to another. Or as many people have heard me say “let’s shift gears” is the catchphrase for transitions.
BEN: As people might imagine, we do long interviews. It’s a luxury — one I appreciate, respect and love. That said, I think really aggressively in interviews about the different levels at work. I’m thinking about what the person is saying in the moment — but I’m constantly triaging the other things I’m hoping to get them to do during the time we have. What anecdotes are the most important? What’s worth lingering on? When do I need to ask them what they were feeling? What should I note and come back to if I have time? I believe It’s kind of thinking both as a reporter and a producer all at once. Gathering information and answers but also thinking about what role that person is playing in the larger structure of the story I’m trying to build.
MARK: Our interviews are all about 20 minutes. I try to make sure we leave enough to cover both what an interviewee is promoting (a book, a film, etc.) and their larger story (their career, their life). That said, an interview should take unexpected turns, and if something is working, you shouldn’t feel bad about sticking with it. The Interview Show, ultimately, is an entertainment show, so if we, say, don’t cover every last aspect I wanted to about an interviewee’s latest project but we do spend 10 minutes on a funny anecdote, well … that’s great.
Is there something that all great interviews have in common?
KERRY: I love when an interview sounds like the kind of conversation you eavesdrop on in a coffee shop. You know the one where two friends are talking at the next table, and you don’t want to listen, but you just can’t stop yourself? Great interviews are like that: compelling stories, valuable information, pure fun! I strive for that, although it’s not possible to strike gold every time.
BILL: Something that all humans can connect to…that triggers an emotional response. This usually involves a guest’s personal journey in the pursuit of the ordinary or the sublime in the research lab, the African village or while scaling a mountain peak. I like surprises, new ideas, emotional connection points…anything that makes me feel something.
PAMELA: A great interviewer remembers that it’s not about them, it’s first, all about the audience and the close second is that it’s all about your guest. Ask great open-ended questions and then let your guest share. A great interview tends to have more of the guest talking then the person hosting the interview.
I also try to frame my introduction of the guest in a conversational tone and don’t “read” their bio. I keep it short and interject something personal about the guest if I can. I then ask the guest to share how they got to where they are today so that they can ease into the interview from a familiar place.
SRINIVAS: Great interviews sound like conversations, not interrogations. At the end of the day it’s not about the interviewer or the guest. It’s about the listener. That’s the person who needs to get the most value of the conversation.
BEN: Humanity. Is that too cheesy? I think an interview is a hyper-formalized version of the most basic social experience… two people talking and interacting. And I think that second part has a tendency to get lost in the first most of the time. When I think of the interviewers I admire the most, and the interviews that really work, often its the energy of real genuine interaction that’s giving the thing its power. It could take the form of one person drawing an emotional experience out of another and sharing it, or one person challenging another, or people just having fun with each other joking around.
News, of course, is a different animal because you’re working in the currency of information — what happened, what do you know, what are the fact. But not always. There’s a lot of interviews on CNN or the Today Show where I wish someone would just tease someone or remark on what the person is saying in some genuine way… like, “Come on, you don’t believe that,” or, “That’s crazy!” Essentially, I think the construct of the interview often works against genuine interaction, and often that’s bad. It makes a lot of interviews worse than they should be.
MARK: I’ll repeat a few things from the other interviewers here, but I’d say: 1) it’s a conversation 2) that the interview listens 3) that the interviewee is the star (that doesn’t mean the interviewer can’t have a personality) and 4) that the interviewee wants to be interviewed and is into it.
Have you ever crashed and burned during an interview? What happened?
KERRY: I wouldn’t say I’ve completely crashed and burned, but I’ve definitely found some interviews more difficult than others. My first podcast interview for MarketingProfs was recorded the day after the Boston Marathon bombing. I’m from Boston, and like everyone else, was just feeling incredibly sad and generally unfocused. Listening to that interview is difficult for me, because I know it could have been better. Fantastic guest, really excellent topic, but bad timing for me.
BILL: I’ve had boring and distracted guests who, no matter how artfully a question is posed, can’t seem to muster a decent response. If, on the radio, I just end the interview early and go to a break. Such interviews when recorded for television just never make it to air.
PAMELA: When I first started doing interviews, I did so on a 2-hour weekend radio show on a local radio station. The show was broadcast live, so all the guests were either live in studio or via phone. I would often interview guests that were not necessarily professionally media trained. I once had a guest who would only answer in short bites of “yes” or “no”; maybe a sentence or two. This forced me to take the brunt of the interview and keep the flow moving. This is also when 5 minutes will feel like a lifetime! I cannot stress the use of open ended questions enough and to also prep your guest in some way. Also, doing your research on your guest will also better prepare you for the type of personality your guest will bring to the show.
SRINIVAS: Recently, I had a guest who I didn’t feel was delivering what I needed. I scrapped it in the middle of the interview because I didn’t want to waste my time or his. This isn’t easy to do. But I think you have to set a standard for your art. And I think you should never compromise on that standard. It doesn’t matter who the guest is. Compromising on the standards you set for your art is a slippery slope.
BEN: There’s lots of interviews where I don’t get what I want or need for my story. The stories I like to do, and what our show is about, I think, is ideas and emotions. If you can’t get people to reflect, to be genuine, to talk about their feelings, to react and have ideas — or at the very least, talk about something in a way that allows you, the reporter, to have a thought about it… you don’t really have what you need to build something bigger.
I think sometimes the interview going “wrong” in a traditional sense, can be pretty rewarding. I was covering the political civil war Wisconsin just went through, where they recalled the governor a bunch of legislators. A really nice Tea Party activist was letting me read her hate mail, which I read into my recorder. It seemed like it would be very exciting tape, but when I went to read it, it was so dirty and profane. And here I am reading this to like a mother of six. I mean, the worst words you can conjure right now — those were probably in there. I was so embarrassed. I was embarrassed for me, and for her, and for whoever wrote the letter. You can hear it in the tape — it’s like my voice is running away… turning into a whisper, and I’m trying to get through these streams of profanities so fast. But I admitted that in the actual story. So instead of being bad tape, you understand the human dynamic of what’s going on — and it’s funny — as funny as hate mail can be anyway.
MARK: I’ve said dumb things, I’ve had guests who I wish were more forthcoming, I’ve had moments where I thought I wouldn’t find my next question. But so far no crash and burning. I’m sure it will happen at the next show now.
Do you do your own editing? What tools do you use?
KERRY: I do post-production on every episode, and I think it makes me a better interviewer. Doing the editing forces me to listen to myself stumble over questions, and I learn my “filler words,” which I then make an effort to eliminate.
I use Camtasia: it’s very easy to use, captures system audio from Skype, and can handle the occasional video episode, as well. My mic of choice is the Samson Meteor USB. Great sound quality, portable, and cute, with a retro look.
BILL: I do not mechanically or electronically edit any longer. Everything on radio is live and for television the interviews are all done in one take. So…I crank up the bio editor of the brain to edit on the fly in redirecting conversations, helping guests form & finish answers and adjusting to a mode more comfortable for them.
PAMELA: We do our own editing for all of the shows. I have a marketing assistant who helps and we use GarageBand and Sonar currently. We are looking to move to Adobe Audition in the near future.
SRINIVAS: I do all my own editing. I think it’s worth mentioning that doing your own editing is a great way to improve your craft. It gives you an opportunity to go back and listen to each interview you do.
- I use Garageband for editing.
- I use Dropbox to store recordings.
- I also use a USB headset to record each interview
BEN: Yes. We edit on Protools at This American Life. Producers edit and mix our own pieces, as well as the host and contributor pieces that we work on. But even when I was a news reporter, I always cut my own tape and did my own production. And I’ll say — I think it’s made me a better interviewer. The reason, I believe that, is that it helps me cut tape in my head. In an interview, when someone starts to answer, I’m actively cutting their responses. If an answer is good, I try, as best I can, to hear where their answer would get cut off — and then I try to get the things that could be cut onto that point to make a bigger moment or interaction happen on tape. That might be getting them to complete a thought or a story. It could be challenging them on something they said — but I wait until they finish — even though I know the latter part of their answer won’t be included.
MARK: I don’t. I have some great people who work on the show with me, and one of them, Ben Chandler, shoots and edits the show. Check him out here. The longer we’ve done the show, the less I want to edit interviews. For my purposes, interviews are best when they just flow from beginning to end.