Ten tips for lousy interviewers: no more excuses for bad interviews

June 27, 2007 | By | 6 Replies More

Is it just me, or are the interviews you see on television getting worse and worse?  There are exceptionally good interviewers, of course (such as Bill Moyers).  Bad interviews are the norm, however.  This is a shame, because most bad interviews could be cured if only the interviewers would follow a few basic rules

Before I go further, I should make it clear that my frustration is with interviews that are serious attempts to discuss a topic with a guest in order to inform or entertain the audience.  I am excluding from this critique interviews on comedy shows (such as Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert), where the interviewer is expected to interject his or her personality with more gusto or even to toy with the guest. 

Without further ado, here are 10 basic rules for conducting effective interviews:

1.  The interviewer needs to shut up and let the guest talk.  How often is it that an interviewer just can’t hold back and ends up dominating the interview, failing to allow the guest a fair chance to talk?  I’ve often watched interviews by Charlie Rose that remind me of this point.  Although Charlie books some terrific guests and does some excellent work, he is one of those interviewers who is often incapable of staying out of the way.  Many interviews end up being “about Charlie.”  In the legal field, the trick to effective direct examination of a witness is to ask brief questions that allow the witness to “bloom” in front of the jury.  If successful, the lawyer asking the questions almost seems invisible.  Many television interviewers have much to learn in this regard.
 
2.  Even if the interviewer knows the topic well (usually they don’t know the topic nearly as well as their guest), let the guest talk about it.  Get out of the way of the guest and let the guest actually have the necessary contiguous blocks of time in order to strut his or her stuff.  Those guests are experts at what you called them on the show to talk about.  Truly, if they were worthy of being on your show, they are capable of filling those relatively few minutes of time. 

3.  Allow the guest an opportunity to put his or her best foot forward.  How often do you see an over-eager interviewer jumping in to interrupt the guest?  Really, I don’t care if the interviewer knows a lot of things about the topic.  I generally would rather hear it from the guest.  I don’t want to hear the interviewer paraphrasing or summarizing the guest’s own book in front of the guest.  I’d much rather hear the guest do that.  Sometimes, of course, an interviewer has no intent on letting the guest actually express a view point.  Many Bill O’Reilly interviews are cases in point.

4.  Don’t put words in the mouth of the guest and then, without allowing a guest to respond, ask the guest an unrelated question.  How often have you heard this technique: “As we all know, President Bush is really doing a great job over in Iraq, now tell me, who is the odds on choice for next president of the United States?”  In a courtroom, the proper objection would be “compound question.”

5.  The interviewer shouldn’t spend time trying to convince me that they are a somebody by talking about who they know or how much they know.  If an interviewer brings that guest on your show, the interviewer should keep him or her the focus of the interview.  It’s incredible how often a veteran interviewer will assume that the show is about the interviewer, rather than the guest.  I know this is getting somewhat redundant with the previous points, but it is amazing how often the guest is treated like an ornament rather than the reason for the show.  TV guests should be treated like guests we have over to our homes.  We all know how rude it would be to invite someone over for dinner, but then to monopolize the entire conversation with only our own opinions. 

6.  Don’t rush the interview.  This is often done because of the “need” for commercial breaks.  This need for commercial breaks is often caused, however, by the failure of the host to shut up and let the guest get to it (see the previous rules).  Therefore, keep the introduction short, then turn to the guest and let her tell her story. 

7.  Be prepared.  I suspect that much of the reason that so many interviewers waste time in interviews is that they haven’t really read the guest’s book or they haven’t really taken the time to view the guest’s new movie.  It appears that many interviewers think they can get away with a few questions put together by the show’s staff, but there is no comparison to an interviewer who has really taken the time to understand the topic prior to conducting an interview.

8.  Do some serious cross-examination, but only after you have allowed the guest to put his or her best foot forward.  Make the guest clarify vague points.  Challenge the guest to provide evidence for his or her conclusions.  Point out sources of bias.  In order to do these things, of course, one must be prepared for the interview (see the previous point).

9.  Don’t limit your choice of guests to those who have fringe viewpoints.  Yes, fringe viewpoint always make for “interesting” interviews.  Perhaps “interesting” is not the right word, however.  Perhaps the right word is “antagonizing.”  Most network news interviewers think they have covered the whole spectrum of thought when they pick someone from the far right and someone from the far left to talk past each other for three minutes.  How much more useful it would be for news programs to pick thoughtful people of various moderate viewpoints, people who would be willing to recognize and meaningfully discuss points other than the ones they themselves advocate.  Guests with moderate viewpoints have the potential of actually engaging with each other in an interview.

10.  Carefully listen to the guest.  If you’ve invited somebody of substance on your show, you will eventually learn something when they speak.  Therefore, don’t just run down your list of questions written out by your staff.  If you actively listen to your guest, you will have an opportunity to see a gem of a conversation emerge, something your audience will treasure long after the show is over.

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Category: Communication, Entertainment, Media

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. gatomjp says:

    Erich, what do you think of Barbara Walters as an interviewer? Why is she the celebrity interviewer of choice? I have always thought that she doesn't deserve the notoriety she has.

    One notable example: During the presidential debates way back in the 70's, Jimmy Carter made it clear that he could not talk about the ongoing efforts to free the American hostages in Iran and yet she insisted on badgering him with questions about it.

    I lost even more respect for her years later when she asked Willie Nelson, "If you could be any kind of twee, what kind of twee would you be?" The look on his astonished face mirrored my own thoughts.

  2. Erika Price says:

    All valuable pieces of criticism, but all equally unlikely to have an impact on the average interviewer. It runs counter to a TV interviewer's goals to let the guest shine and bloom, to become "invisible". In the courtroom, it suits a lawyer's goals to disappear, and let the witness take center stage. But in the media, the interviewer has the ultimate, life-long goal of selling themself, and nothing more. If an interviewer could artfully focus on their guest, extract fascinating, lengthy answers and disappear, how would said interviewer get a book deal? A prime time slot?

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Gatomjp: I haven't see Barbara Walters at work lately. My impression of her is that she "occupied" at least half of the limelight in the interviews she conducted. Her interviews (the ones I remember from the past decade) were equally about Barbara and the guest. That's how they were promoted and that's how they unfolded.

    As I indicated, what I like in the post is to have the interviewers stay out of the way. At the end of a good news interview you might not even remember who was asking the questions.

    I should mention, though, that my frustration is mostly with news interviews, where the interviewer so often tramples all over the guest. There are other styles of interviews too (not on new shows), where the interview becomes highly conversational, with lots of give and take. I don't find these offensive–sometimes they are delightful.

  4. Mary says:

    You know, until your post, Erich, I never thought about lawyers having great interviewing techniques – mostly because the scenes we see on TV or in the movies show lawyers pointedly jabbing questions at those on the stand and then proving their cases with a long, flourishing story, in essence, making the whole thing about them. It's nice to hear about what really happens (i.e. the lawyer blends in). I agree with your interview suggestions.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Mary: Most litigation strategists suggest different approaches for direct exam (asking your own witnesses questions) and cross-exam (challenging unfriendly witnesses). In direct exam, it is generally suggested that the lawyer let the witness do the talking, the lawyer fading into the background. For cross, though, it is generally taught that the lawyer should keep tight control over the witness–keep the questions such that the witness cannot wander around and explain things at his/her leisure. Make that witness eat his/her own words from prior statements and depositions. It's largely a matter of who is likely to be hostile. If you are dealing with a friendly witness, let that witness say it in his/her own words. To lead one's own witness makes a jury suspect that the witness is not strong enough or confident enough to be trusted. On cross, you are there to do damage to a hostile witness.

    When gathering "news," it would seem to me that most "neutral" interviewers should do some combination of direct and cross. First, make sure that the witness/guest has a full opportunity to speak. Only then should the interviewer test the witness with some cross exam. That's my preference, anyway. It makes me suspicious to see a "neutral" news gatherer attacking a witness (or keeping a witness from having a chance to talk freely) without first giving that person a chance to speak freely.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Terry Gross is one of the best interviewers in the business. Why? James Fallows explains:

    She also avoids the common pitfall of highbrow public broadcasting-style interviewers: giving in to the temptation to show off how much she knows and how smart she is in the set-up to the questions.

    What she does instead, and what she shows brilliantly in this interview, is: she listens, and she thinks. In my experience, 99% of the difference between a good interviewer (or a good panel moderator) and a bad one lies in what that person is doing while the interviewee talks. If the interviewer is mainly using that time to move down to the next item on the question list, the result will be terrible. But if the interviewer is listening, then he or she is in position to pick up leads ("Now, that's an intriguing idea, tell us more about…"), to look for interesting tensions ("You used to say X, but now it sounds like…"), to sum up and give shape to what the subject has said ("It sounds as if you're suggesting…"). And, having paid the interviewee the respect of actually listening to the comments, the interviewer is also positioned to ask truly tough questions without having to bluster or insult.

    http://jamesfallows.theatlantic.com/archives/2008

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