Episodes: How to interview


When I was first starting out in my journalism career -- and even in my criticism career -- having to do a big interview would keep me up nights. I remember that I once did a big interview for the Los Angeles Times with Ryan McPartlin, the guy who played Captain Awesome on Chuck, and I barely slept the night before. And when I recorded the second episode of my new podcast, I Think You're Interesting (shameless plug!), with Desmin Borges, I had some of the same feeling of not being able to sleep because of my fear that something might go wrong with the recording, or that I would run out of questions, or something like that.

Which is to say that I think a lot of people are looking for a silver bullet when it comes to interviewing folks, especially when that interview is going to be a straight Q&A, but no silver bullet exists. It's also to say that I made a tweet about how to do an interview today, and it ended up being really popular, and as someone who never knows what to write for these newsletters, I thought, hey, why not?

The biggest question you have to ask is this: Are you conducting the interview to get quotes, to get information, or to reveal your subject? Sometimes, you're doing all three, or a mix of two, or whatever. But most interviews lean most toward one of those three categories.

If you're just looking to get quotes, great. You're golden. The best material in any interview, of any length, will always come in the second half, so lead with the most general questions you can think of that aren't, like, "Why are you doing what you're doing?" Then, in the second half, you'll have loosened them up enough that you can ask them slightly more probing questions. But if all you need are quotes (or "color") for a larger piece, then I always say you just need three really good sentences. And pretty much any person is going to give you three halfway decent sentences if you talk to them for five minutes. Getting from "halfway decent" to "really good" is on you, the interviewer, but we'll deal with that in a second.

If you're looking to get information, the most important thing is not to be afraid that you look stupid. Looking stupid is your friend here, because even if you feel like you know everything, you'll be better off starting from some of the basics. No matter who you're talking to to get information, they know more than you. So let them guide you through it, rather than trying to steer them. Of all the types of interviews, active listening will help you most here.

If you're looking to reveal your subject (usually for a Q&A or profile or podcast or something), well, that's the toughest thing to do, because you have to make yourself a part of the story, to some degree. (After all, this person didn't just start monologuing out of nowhere.) But you also have to remove yourself as much as possible. It's a tricky, tricky balancing act, which I summed up in the following steps from the tweet:

1.) Overprepare. Get to know the subject better than anybody else does. Watch as much stuff as you can. Read old interviews with them. Try to figure out what they get asked a lot. IF it's necessary to ask them about it, find a new way in. If it's not necessary, avoid it. Make some very quick notes based on this overpreparation.

2.) Forget all of it. If you're too over-prepared, it's going to seem stiff and awkward. There's a flow to an interview, and you want to let that flow overtake you in the moment. If you're sitting there saying, "I need to talk about this and this and this," then you're not ready to be swept away. (Possible exceptions include format-heavy interviews, like, say, AV Club's Random Roles, which is all about adhering to a format.)

3.) Have a conversation. As in any conversation, the most important thing to do is just listen to what the other person is telling you. Their words will open up little doors in what they're saying, that will lead to whole other rooms, with doors of their own. It will take some time to develop this skill, but you'll eventually start hearing answers behind answers, until you know exactly where you want to go next from the answers that are being given to you. Your overpreparation will sink in here, and start to inform what you're doing. But it won't overwhelm what you're doing.

That's the basics of it. I often advise people to write down 5-15 little short bursts of words that will queue up for them questions they can ask if they get stuck or wander down an alley they don't know the way out of or just forget their train of thought. (This happened to me recording a podcast just yesterday, and by turning to my notes, I was able to get back on track.) But having too much more written down will often trap you into something rigid, when you want something fluid.

As with all things, you'll get better as you practice it. I used to hate doing interviews more than anything else, and now I have an interview podcast. America! What a country!

(My top five "Would kill to interview them; haven't yet gotten to" interviews: 1.) Bill Watterson. 2.) Joss Whedon. 3.) Steven Spielberg. 4.) Barack Obama. 5.) Taylor Swift. I'm totally serious about that last one. I think Taylor and I would have a great chat.)

---

New feature! Our Friday mailbag feature is a lot of fun! Why not get involved? Please email me your questions over the course of the week, and I'll pick a few I find interesting and go from there. I'll always answer at least three per week, unless I just don't have the material. AND THAT'S ON YOU.

--

Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.