Help me become the next Barbara Walters/Charlie Rose
March 25, 2013 1:15 AM   Subscribe

I want to be great at interviewing people, but going to journalism school isn't an option. What books will help me most? How do I learn to recognize and ask great questions? How do I prepare? Who are exceptional interviewers I should check out, and what do you think I can specifically learn from them?
posted by ferdinandcc to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Since you mention Barbara Walters, maybe you already know about her book How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything?
posted by XMLicious at 1:26 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I generally hate most interviews in magazines and newspapers, but my favourite interviewer is the podcaster Colin Marshall. What, I think, distinguishes his interviews is that he seems to have a real engagement and interest in the people he is interviewing and in revealing the complexity of how they think and their work. Its not unusual in his show to here the subject pause and say "wow.. that was a great question". If you want a masterclass on the art of longform interviewing I would definitely recommend his show.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 1:27 AM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: @XMLicious, I did pick up that book at a used bookstore years ago, but it's at my parents' home in Alaska, I think. I'll try to find another copy.
posted by ferdinandcc at 1:31 AM on March 25, 2013

I think great interviews shed light on ordinary people and take the flash off famous people. The key to that is getting people to talk about what they've always wanted to say. In celebrity and some "expert" interviews I've read, people seem to love to dispel myths and say, "Actually, I..." In interviewing ordinary people, I've found that people love feeling valued for the things they think others don't notice-- their work, their relationships with those of higher statuses (complaining), how their world has changed and where they think it's going.

It was an answer on AskMe once about what to talk about on dates, and it was 4 things: history, place, and two other things (if someone could find it...)
posted by ichomp at 1:45 AM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh you should listen to "Fresh Air" on NPR (downloadable as podcast) - Terry Gross is an excellent interviewer!
posted by beccyjoe at 2:37 AM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I love Terry Gross. This looks like it might be interesting (Haven't had enough time to check out much of it yet; I'm on third-world internet and the speeds are slow).

Charlie Rose—An Interview with Terry Gross.
posted by ferdinandcc at 3:03 AM on March 25, 2013

Alec Baldwin on Here's The Thing on WNYC caused me to think a fair amount about what makes a good interviewer. Same with Melvyn Bragg on In Our Time (BBC4). Neither is perfect, but I think you can learn from each.

Bill Moyers, too. His shows are free to watch online.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 3:06 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Part of what makes Colin Marshall such a good interviewer is that he really does his homework. When he interviews an author, it’s evident that he’s read all their stuff. When an interviewee struggles to remember the name of particular movie or book to illustrate a point, he can always slip in and name that movie or book immediately. It’s like a Vulcan mind-meld.

He also keeps his questions fairly short, and then gets out of the way. He listens hard, and asks supplementary questions to clarify glancing references. You can hear the interviewee warming up and opening out in the sunshine of his sheer attention.
posted by Grunyon at 4:35 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ira Glass is very good at asking the hard question in a soft way, which is a skill I've always greatly admired.
posted by Diablevert at 5:17 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of the things I love about Charlie Rose - and that others hate about him! - is that he interviews people to give them the opportunity to speak, not to attack them or grill them on an issue. He gets them to willingly go deep. He does it while being polite. He doesn't cut them off excessively, or interrupt. And he can follow the conversation wherever it goes, because he has clearly done his homework in advance.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:20 AM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: NPR has a book called "Sound Reporting" - worth it even if you're not interested in radio per se.

Your absolute best bet is really just getting practice. It doesn't have to be for a story necessarily, as long as you're going out and talking to a lot of people.

It sort of depends on what kind of interviews you want to do, but very general tips: ask open ended questions (if you can get people into storytelling mode it often pays off), really listen to the answers, don't let yourself be self conscious, and, if you're not profiling someone specific, know when to cut your losses and walk off. Remember that if your subject isn't used to interviews, it may be a bit nervewracking for them, too.

Three good questions, regardless of circumstances:
- Is there anything else I should be asking?
- Is there anyone else I should talk to about this?
- Can I get in touch with you if I have any follow up questions?
posted by eponym at 5:27 AM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This article on Transom is mostly a post-mortem about The State We're In, which was a great public radio show that got cancelled last year, but there are some pretty detailed interview templates in there that might be of help to you.
posted by Kosh at 5:35 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @Kosh, do you mean this article? (your link didn't work).
posted by ferdinandcc at 5:52 AM on March 25, 2013

Response by poster: Follow-up question: I'm a graphic designer and there are so many places where I can submit a design for peer review and criticism. Are there any places online specifically for, say, journalism students and journalism 'enthusiasts' to post their work for critiques by other people in that field? I'd love to do some practice interviews, post them somewhere, and hear which of my questions just absolutely suck, and where I should've dug deeper, etc.
posted by ferdinandcc at 6:02 AM on March 25, 2013

Best answer: I am not a journalist but my husband is and he always gets frustrated when he sees reporters asking very narrow questions, ie yes or no questions. In some cases, those are the best questions like when Oprah asked Lance if he took performance enhancing drugs. But that was a question to start the conversation and was really the question everyone wanted an answer to.

He focuses on how, why or what questions because they open more of a dialogue.

He also anticpates what an answer might be, not because he wants to steer the interview but because he wants to validate whether its a good question. If you put yourself in the other persons shoes and try to answer the question and find yourself saying "well that's a dumb question, the answer is obvious" then maybe it's not the best question.

He also tries to come up with questions that provide into the persons thoughts. Don't be afraid to ask hard questions but don't try to corner the subject either.

Those are just the things I have overheard him complain about :)
posted by polkadot at 6:03 AM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I cannot recommend highly enough listening to some interviews by Ron Bennington of SiriusXM radio. His radio show Ron & Fez may not be to your tastes, but he is truly one of the best ones out there today. What is most impressive is his ability to talk to anyone from any field, and you can tell that the subjects often realize they aren't talking to the standard interviewer on a press junket. Luckily there is a website with many of the segments from his regular show as well as a series called Unmasked.
posted by shinynewnick at 6:35 AM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Jian Gomeshi is a Canadian radio broadcaster and an exceptional interviewer. Check out his radio show. He basically interviews people from all fields but really does his research beforehand-- he's a bit self-deprecating and brutally honest sometimes, which I think makes it easy for his guests to open up during the interviews.
posted by winterportage at 7:13 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

When Elliot Spitzer briefly had a show on CNN a couple of years ago, I thought he was a great interviewer. The qualities he exhibited were: well-prepared, calm voice, his questions were succinct and he let his guests talk (Chris Matthews and Bill O'Reilly are both awful in that regard), and he asked follow-up questions when needed. I presume you might be able to find some YouTube recordings of those shows. You could also benefit from watching some Mike Wallace interviews (perhaps in 60 Minutes archives). It may seem obvious, but as a general rule make sure to ask open ended questions rather than ones that can be answered with a simple yes or no.
posted by Dansaman at 8:13 AM on March 25, 2013

I think you should listen to Bullseye which is hosted by a fellow Mefite. He does his homework and doesn't generally ask questions that other interviewers have already covered. I've lost count of the number of times guests have been surprised by the insight, thoughtfulness, and uniqueness of his questions.
posted by mmascolino at 8:20 AM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

As a follow-up, I did learn from a NYT journalist / professor of mine that you are often well served by silence. That doesn't always translate well to performance based interviews, but he found that a well placed pause on his end would encourage people to continue talking. He said often that's where he would get a piece of the interview that was more heartfelt, deeper than the stock answer they had prepared.
posted by shinynewnick at 10:28 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You all are great. I should add that all my interviews will (most likely) be written and not video or audio. (But these audio and video interview examples are all relevant, too.)
posted by ferdinandcc at 11:30 AM on March 25, 2013

Marc Maron, on his WTF podcast, has a knack for getting into the emotional shoes of his guests and asking questions from there.
posted by Team of Scientists at 5:21 PM on March 25, 2013

I've always been partial to the way Warren Olney (To The Point, Which Way L.A.) conducts interviews. He seems to catch the slippery people especially well. He's courteous, he's not "nailing" them in a rude way, but he seems to get more out of people. A lot is crammed into To The Point nowadays so unfortunately there is less time to probe subjects. Maybe some of his archived shows from the LA days might be helpful ...
posted by stowaway at 8:38 PM on March 25, 2013

Listen to Howard Stern. I know it sounds crazy, but he is the best interviewer that has ever existed. Seriously... you will be blown away by his ability to make his guest feel comfortable and open-up.
posted by verevi at 10:53 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

verevi is right about Stern.

Watch Later with Bob Costas on YouTube. He hosted the show from 1988-1994.

Tom Snyder was a great interviewer. Check out Letterman's interviews when he was on NBC. Very clever guy back then.

Charlie Rose is an awful interviewer. He's one of those rare interviewers who is so bad that he makes interesting guests seem boring. I credit his success to his ability to schmooze with "important people" at cocktail parties.
posted by Birchpear at 3:59 PM on April 10, 2013

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