How to interview someone on camera? (Not for a job.)
January 3, 2014 2:07 PM   Subscribe

Part of my job as a writer should be interviewing interesting people—tech types, fashion designers, musicians, etc. Except I get absolutely panicky when I do it. I have to fly overseas to interview three high-level dudes on camera this Thursday, and I'm already stage-frightey. I hate it. Google search terms, resources, tips, anecdotes, words of encouragement, hugs?

I have interviewed people for editorial pieces in the past, but over the phone. I panicked, and didn't get the content I needed, to the chagrin of my editors and bosses.

I just felt incompetent and out of my element, with a huge dollop of "imposter syndrome."

Now I have to do it on camera, for clients—without colleagues/superiors to help me.

I've somehow managed to climb the ranks to a position that is very autonomous without having grown this skill, and now I feel like even more of an imposter. Like they'll smell this n00b coming a mile away, and I'll seem even more incompetent. Or worse, make them nervous right along with me.

So. I've tried googling. 99.9% of the results are about job interviews. I found a couple of relatively useful links, but my "fu" isn't giving me much about being the interviewer, or on camera. Let alone together as a single result.

Some questions:

How do I come across as cool and calm, when I'm panicking on the inside?

Part 2 of the previous question, is how do I get them to be calm if I'm freaking out?

How do I really get to the meat of the content I need? Is it just a matter of "keep being inquisitive?"

How do I take a deep breath, and deny my desire to rush through and just have it over with?

How much time do you, interviewers of Mefi, spend researching?

Is there any other upfront stuff I can do to feel prepared?

Is there a format of notes that will make it much easier for me to scan and ask?

Should I even read from my notes?

Anything else y'all got for me would be great. I am completely aware that I must sound like I'm totally bean-plating, but this is really a blind spot to me and I'm wicked nervous.

posted by ulfberht to Work & Money (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For some background, I was a writer/journalist for several years and spent a good stint of that as The Interview Guy because I liked doing them and was apparently good at them and everyone else thought they were a bear.

Think of it as having a conversation. Your job is to find what's interesting about this person on this topic, so you can relay it to everyone else. Look at this interview with Lorde for an example where the interviewer was nervous but still delivered a great interview. And then if you're doing something more edited, you clean it up to make it look like you knew what you were doing.

Some tips:

Read through current interviews and see what everyone else has already asked. Part of what's refreshing about really enjoyable interviews is they skip over the same thing I can read anywhere else. Or if there's some interesting thread that the previous interviewers didn't tug, you can say "So I saw in this interview you said blah, but I was wondering about thing?"

Obviously, read some background about who they are and what they've done because it's obvious when you haven't done your homework. But at the same time, they have pre-rehearsed answers to those questions, so if you ask something they've covered already, you might get a bored answer but it's still an answer.

They are probably just as worried about you clowning them as a journalist as you are of looking like a clown.

I always considered a great interview one where I could ask a question then sit back and let them talk. My goal was to vanish into the background. Obviously this is different if you're on one of those "So there I was on the beaches of Maui with Joaquin Phoenix"-type interviews.

Try to avoid yes or no questions unless you're just confirming information, because "So you were in Planet Boomslang in 1996?" might just get you a "Yes" and then you're staring at each other. But "So what was it like when you were in Planet Boomslang?" may get you a more expansive answer.

As for being cool, calm, and collected, I think that's about preparation and knowing what you're trying to get. I'd make sure you know your topic well enough to at least fake being knowledgable about it, then work up your questions based on what's interesting about that. Being actually interested in the topic will help tremendously, of course. I'd say you're ready when you could give a 2-3 sentence pitch on why this person is interesting and worth talking to about (thing).

Read interviews. I still read a ton of interviews to figure out what I like about them. Interviews in your field are obviously great but good interviews can give you a good framework for what works and what doesn't work. Again, I found I like interviews where the interviewer sort of...nudges with a question, then steps back and lets the person talk, that's where my style wind up.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:32 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

You need to spend as much time researching as possible (for example, Canadian pop savant Narduar does insane amounts of research, and he's just a volunteer).

This allows you to quickly get context out of the way on your own terms, and then ask more meaningful questions that allow your subject to provide real insights.

Research also allows you to construct a narrative about your subject, which is interview gold, because your subject can then tell stories.

Get to know 80% about your subject by researching everything about them online if you can. Even try phoning up coworkers in advance.

If this is not straight journalism/reporting, you can also forward questions to your subjects ahead of time to give them time to prepare.

As for stage fright, well, this is something you HAVE TO master. The problem ain't going to go away unless you proactively address it. You have to take action.

Some ways to master stage fright:

1) Write down your questions
2) Have lots of questions
3) Learn about "reflective speaking" and "intentional interviewing"

For #1 and #2, practice asking the questions in the mirror. A lot.

For #3, you're going to want to pay attention to your own body language. Make eye contact. Nod your head. Mirror their body contact (their posture when they are seated, how they arrange their hands, the angle of their head).

And try to "reflect" back what they say - paraphrase what you have heard. This is not only a useful technique for guiding the flow of the interview, but it also shows them you are listening, and allows them to provide clarification.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:33 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Let me say first that I know who you are, even if you don't know me by name. Researching. Research. This is really what makes a journalist into a tool for change, rather than simply a writer. It is easy to pitch for work, but hard for you to deliver mainly because you are not doing the research required to ask the open questions that are really needed with the reflection required.
posted by parmanparman at 3:05 PM on January 3, 2014

Aside from his in-depth research, Nardwuar also benefits from inhabiting an interviewing persona that is (presumably!) not exactly like the "real" Nardwuar. Can you develop a more subtle persona for these interviews that would shield you from the imposter vibe you're feeling? You can't be an imposter if you're not being you, right?
posted by baseballpajamas at 5:08 PM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Go meditate or take deep breaths for 10-20 minutes before the interview.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:31 PM on January 3, 2014

I conduct interviews, although not generally on-camera.

How do I come across as cool and calm, when I'm panicking on the inside?

There's an article called "Loosening Lips: The Art of the Interview," which focuses more on investigative stories, but has some good general advice. One quote: "Prior to any interview you must silence your ego and thus prepare yourself to listen. The ego is a primitive device installed in your brain to tell you when to flee from tigers. Unless you regularly interview tigers, it will misinform you during any interview, hectoring you with concerns about your next question or whether you dressed properly." He suggests plenty of preparation, mentally rehearsing a successful interview, and then taking a moment directly before the actual conversation to calm down and collect your thoughts.

Part 2 of the previous question, is how do I get them to be calm if I'm freaking out?

Unless your subjects are uniquely awful, they likely want this to go smoothly just as much as you do -- and if they're high level, they're probably well-versed in giving interviews

How do I really get to the meat of the content I need? Is it just a matter of "keep being inquisitive?"

Inquisitiveness helps. I find my interviews go best when I start with a mental checklist of everything that I need to ask, but allow myself to go off-script whenever my interviewee veers onto a different topic or says something I want to follow up on. If you're worried about asking too many questions, or following up too extensively on something, in general, don't. Is your interview going to be edited later, or aired live/as-is? If you're going to be airing the whole thing, you get a little less room for digression.

How do I take a deep breath, and deny my desire to rush through and just have it over with?

Spend the time while they're talking really listening to their answers, instead of planning your next questions in your head. When they're finished, nod, smile, and take a second or two before you ask anything else. Personally, I have a tendency to want to keep an interview moving, and will sometimes blurt out any question I can think of to prevent awkward pauses, but there's really nothing wrong with taking a beat or two. This will prevent you from stepping on your subject's answers and sometimes goad them into elaborating a bit, and it also gives you some time to compose yourself.
posted by eponym at 5:56 PM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would say, definitely use notes. If you're already panicky, the last thing you need is for your brain to seize up and get stuck without a question. But don't be a slave to your notes!

Don't ask yes-or-no questions, obviously.

Even if you think you've hit a long, deadly silence, or you feel like you're fumbling with a question for like 2 minutes, when you play it back you'll probably find that the whole agonizing ordeal only lasted like two seconds.

If you're new to interviewing and you're really nervous, you could always tell them so before the interview. In my experience that tended to make people extra chatty, because they know they have to work a little harder to compensate for you.

If you're interviewing three people, try to find areas where they disagree, or contrasts in their backgrounds. Ask them about their different approaches. Try to get them talking to each other.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 8:54 PM on January 3, 2014

Just to emphasize what others said: Research and make notes to prepare yourself before the interview. Knowing you're prepared is the best way to prevent stage fright. It's also a way of assuring you've got everything you need. Just check off answers as you get them. Good luck. You'll find these are valuable skills once you've got them nailed, which you will.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:25 AM on January 4, 2014

I found this book to be pretty helpful, especially the sections on interviewing techniques. It's a pretty quick read (1-2 days).
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 2:46 PM on January 4, 2014

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