Interviews are vital to the success of any author, no matter what kind of writing you do.
- A journalist’s bread and butter comes from interviewing people to get verifiable information about topics and events.
- A nonfiction writer interviews experts on her topic to confirm her knowledge and add the richness of multiple perspectives.
- A fiction writer can interview people who have knowledge he lacks, or to help add color and verisimilitude to his world, no matter how fantastic.
- A blogger relies on interviews to keep content fresh, and to make additional fans aware of the blog.
And that’s just talking about needing do interviews. Writers of all stripes can also get interviewed to build awareness of their writing and to develop their personal brand.
Either way, if you don’t know how to interview and get interviewed, it’s time you learned. Most of the heavy lifting you’ll learn by practice and repetition, but let’s start here with the basics.
Let’s start by defining an interview, from the perspective of a writer.
An interview (also called a media interview) is when a member of the media asks questions of or has a conversation with somebody for purposes of sharing parts of that conversation with the public.
This is different from job interviews, although that’s how the term is used most often. Both consist of two people having a conversation about something they’re both involved with professionally. It’s the intent that defines them.
The intent of a job interview is to decide whether or not one person in the conversation will be given a job.
The intent of a media interview is to create entertaining, intelligent, and meaningful dialogue around a set topic and for a specific audience. No matter which side of the questions you’re sitting on, you must keep that goal in mind from start to finish. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting your time–or at least squandering opportunity.
Whether you’re giving or receiving an interview, a few basic best practices apply at least 90% of the time.
1. Show Up Knowing What You Want to Talk About
Never show up for, or give, an interview without knowing the agenda.
It doesn’t have to be a rehearsed dialogue — in fact, it shouldn’t be — but know as specifically as you can what the interview will be about. If you’re giving the interview, come with questions that ask what you want answered. If you’re getting interviewed, find out as much as you can about the specifics your interviewer wants to discuss, and make notes for those.
Some kindhearted interviewers will send their list of questions ahead of time to let the interviewee prepare as well as possible. If you’re conducting an interview, do that if you can — but don’t be afraid to let the conversation wander if it happens naturally. If you’re being interviewed, it’s okay to ask for the list or agenda.
2. Prepare for the Most Likely Questions and Answers
Even if you don’t get or give a prepared list of questions, you almost certainly have a good general notion of the sorts of things that will be said in the interview. Make a list of the questions or answers that are likely to show up, and prepare your responses in advance.
This isn’t cheating! Interviewers and interviewees at the professional level do this all the time. It’s how they sound smart when asked questions, and how they stay calm when an (apparently) unexpected answer comes out of a counterpart’s mouth.
3. Use Images When You Speak
Humans are visual creatures. We learn best and are most interested when we can see what we’re hearing about.
Of course, that’s not possible when you’re on a phone interview or a radio show/podcast, but you can still use visual imagery when you speak. As you’re preparing your questions and answers, think about how to phrase them in visual terms. That will make them shine for the audience, whether they’re listening live or simply reading excerpts of what was said.
This even applies to TV and vlog interviews. Although your smiling face is visible, you (probably) won’t have a lot of visual aids to help you get your point across. Pretend you’re on audio only when you choose your phrasing, to keep people engaged.
4. Don’t Use Numbers Twice in a Row
On the flip side of using imagery, you should avoid long strings of numbers and statistics.
Yes, they give weight and specificity to what you say. No, (almost) nobody remembers or cares about them. Follow a simple rule: only use one set of numbers in any given answer.
It’s okay to say, “Last year, 213 million tribbles were born out of wedlock.” People will hear that, realize how many tribbles caused the trouble, and remember it later on.
But if you say, “In 2017, 213 million tribbles were born out of wedlock,” folks will tune out. And don’t even think about saying “In the first and second quarters of 2017, 213 tribbles were born in a total of 174 starships in a 6-quadrant area.”
Note: it’s all right to use more than one number in a set of numbers — for example, “A tribble litter consists of between 24 and 48 individual pups.” But don’t bring in more numbers unless it’s absolutely necessary.
5. Use “Dinner Party” Speaking
This is simple to understand, but can be challenging to remember. Unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise, use the tone, language, body language, intonation, and general speaking style you would while at dinner with your boss, your spouse’s parents, or a similar group of people you want to impress but who you don’t have to be overly formal with.
A whole lot of tiny pieces of advice fit into this sphere. You can try to remember them all individually, or just use the “Dinner Party” rule and put yourself in that headspace each time you interview, and each time you practice for the interview.
This is less important if you’re giving an interview for somebody who will just write up a summary of your responses, but you should do it even under those circumstances. If nothing else, it lets you practice the right demeanor for when you are live.
6. Treat Each Question as a Separate Interview
Listen. Here’s a truth you’ll need to remember.
You are going to screw up in an interview. Whether you’re giving or getting, nervous or seasoned, sooner or later, you’re going to totally bork it on the air.
When that happens, treat the next question like the preceding disaster didn’t even happen. Do that with every single question in the interview. That helps you stay focused, fights fatigue, and keeps the interview itself digestible for you, for your partner, and for the audience.
It takes discipline to do this when you’ve just dropped the rhetorical ball, which is why you should do it with every question, every time. Once it’s second nature, you won’t have to focus on doing it under fire. It will have happened accidentally and automatically.
As a writer, if you’re getting interviewed, it’s for one of two reasons:
- You are gathering publicity to support a book, blog, or other product you’ve just put out. You’re hoping to get more ears and eyes on your work so more people will buy what you’ve created.
- You are building your credentials as a subject matter expert. Your job is to sound as smart and knowledgeable as possible about the topic you’re writing on, so people will look to your work when they have questions.
Either way, what you’re doing is selling you.
People might buy your book on the strength of the idea, or buy your consulting services on the power of your resume…but most folks don’t make decisions like that. Instead, they’ll buy your book because they like you, and hire you because you made them feel confident, informed, and empowered.
As you prepare to get interviewed, remember one of the most important things about how humans assess one another:
When somebody says somebody else is “smart,” what they really mean 90% of the time is that person communicates well.
Which means your goal whenever you get interviewed is to communicate your expertise and passion as engagingly and clearly as you possibly can.
The 5 Cs of Communication
The best way to do that is to use the 5 Cs:
Clarity: Make your points clearly, using words the average listener or reader can understand. Use short sentences, visual imagery, and metaphor to make your point. Avoid jargon and technical terms unless you can introduce and define them in a relatable way that doesn’t break the flow of your point.
This is your core job as an interviewee: to make sure people you speak to understand what you’re talking about. Without it, you might as well just listen to somebody else talk.
Conciseness: You’ve listened to interviews where the person speaking took two minutes to make a 10-second point, or kept diverting into rambling stories or asides. Never do either of those things. Practice your answers so you can give a complete response in as short a time as possible.
People have short attention spans these days. The more information you can give in as short a time as possible, the more impressed they’ll be with you and your work.
Cleverness: Clever turns of phrase make people remember a speaker. For better or worse, rhymes, alliteration, sound bites, and pith often go over better than a mature and nuanced discussion of a topic. Practice your answers and your approach to find ways to slip conversational gems in that people will remember.
It’s possible to go overboard with this. If you use too much clever language, your point can get lost in all the shiny verbiage. Limit yourself to one really clever sentence for every other answer, and you should do just fine.
Curiosity: The biggest risk an author runs when interviewing is coming off as a self-indulgent know-it-all. You invented the story, or you’re an expert in the field, so it’s frustratingly easy to sound patronizing or arrogant when discussing what you do.
The best solution to this I’ve ever encountered is to remember curiosity. When you answer questions, let the curiosity you had about the topic at first shine through in your voice and your words. When possible, say things that share your curiosity with the audience. It helps to establish you not as somebody looking down on those who know less, but as a passionate fellow traveler on the same road of exploration.
Companionability: The best interviews always sound more like a conversation between friends. Work toward that as much as possible before the actual interview begins, and keep working toward a natural back-and-forth between yourself and your interviewer.
Even in a formal setting, that connection is obvious to those listening. It makes the entire interview more compelling and memorable, and set you up as a likable person. The best interviewees go one step further and make it feel like they’re having that friendly conversation with the audience.
Having a few thousands fans leave an interview feeling like they’re your personal friend works out pretty well for writers of any kind. It’s your job to practice until you can do that.
Remember in the general advice how I suggested that you prepare for questions and topics you think you’ll be asked about? If you go through your notes for each topic and find ways to apply each of these 5 Cs, you’ll be well on your way to Total Interview Proficiency (™).
When conducting an interview, your job is to inform your audience while making your guest seem as authoritative as possible. Even if the guest isn’t very authoritative.
You need to do this for two reasons:
- If you interview an unqualified guest, that reflects poorly on you as an interviewer. Better to make that person seem competent for now and just not invite him back, than to expose what many will view as your mistake for inviting him on.
- When you make a guest look and feel awesome, that guest will have enormous goodwill toward you. She will share your show on social media, invite you to other media opportunities, and refer other professionals you can interview later. It’s good karma, and comes back quicker than you think.
Making an interviewee seem authoritative isn’t too hard. Follow these 5 steps, and you’re well on your way to golden.
1. Give Advance Notice:
Definitely send a copy of your questions or agenda to your interviewee a week or so before the interview. If you’re a more spontaneous kind of person, that’s okay. Present your general gist and let them know you’ll also spend some time off-script.
You can’t make your interview partner prepare using the advance notice you give, but you can make it easy for those who want to. And those who want to will naturally be the best interviews you give anyway.
2. Help Everybody Relax
Stage fright is a thing, even when the audience is invisible podcast listeners and the “stage” is a Skype window while sitting in a home office. Before you even start recording, take five or ten minutes to just chat with your interviewee. Go over the general agenda, ask if there’s anything particular she would like to talk about, knock out any technical challenges, and just chat for a while.
Once you’ve built rapport and feel comfortable with each other, then it’s time to go live. The more relaxed and natural you both feel before you record, the better the vibe will be while you’re on the air.
3. Start With Softballs
A “softball” is an easy question you know the interviewee will knock out of the park. In job interviews, it’s often a series of confirm/deny questions about the resume — stuff the subject is confident about so you can establish a rhythm.
In a media interview, it’s good to start similarly. Open with some questions about credentials, experiences, and other ways your interviewee got to where she is today. Most interviewees are used to answering those questions, and the answers will come off smoothly.
Do this well, and you’ll take that initial relaxation and solidify it with confidence. Somebody in that state is ready to give a great interview.
4. Follow Up
This is one of the best ways to make an interviewee sound and look bright, and to set yourself up as a great facilitator of somebody’s voice.
While your interviewee is answering a question, look for a hook from which you can launch a follow-up question. Pick a point of curiosity, or something that you didn’t quite understand, or just a fact you found interesting. Use a question to invite the interviewee to explore that part of the answer more deeply.
Doing this proves to your audience that you’re listening, and makes the interview feel more like a conversation. If you watch any of the top interviewers in the game — people like Charlie Rose — they do this almost every time.
5. Avoid Making Statements
I know, I know…it’s tempting to use your platform to demonstrate your knowledge and expertise, and to make yourself out to be the smartest person in your room.
Resist that temptation.
The interview is time for your guest to shine. Your job is to ask questions to help that happen, not to make statements that show off your own knowledge. Any sentence you consider that doesn’t end with a question mark is almost always a bad idea.
If you find yourself accidentally making statements, an easy cover up is to turn it into a question by adding “What do you think?” or “Do you agree?” to the end of it. That’s not as good as a real question, but still turns the spotlight directly back on your interviewee.
6. Finish with the One-Two Punch
Whatever kind of interview you do, aim for a big finish.
I mentioned in the earlier section about ending with a bang. Do some research and thinking, and figure out the question that will make your interviewee shine the brightest possible. Once you find it, put it at the end of the list.
If you’re comfortable with it, let your subject know what that last question is going to be, so she can think about and rehearse the best possible answer. The goal is send your interviewee home feeling great about the interview performance.
Though it’s a complete beginner’s guide, this article only touches on the surface of what you’ll need to do to become an excellent interviewer and interviewee. Luckily, a host of resources are out there for you to tap as you develop your chops with this important skill.
Here are some of my favorites:
- Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, by Carmine Gallo
- Media Interview Techniques: A Complete Guide to Media Training, by Robert Taylor
- The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to KNow Before Your Next Interview, by Brad Phillips
- Quick and Dirty Podcast: How to Conduct a Media Interview Like a Pro
- NPR’s Ethics Handbook for Speaking Appearances
Also, listen to podcasts. Any podcast will do, but those in the sphere where you write are best. Listen to how others interview, and note what they did poorly and what they did well. Work on your own interviewing voice to turn those bright points into personal habits, and to cull out any of the weak spots you’re also sometimes guilty of.
I’d especially recommend listening to NPR’s Radiolab podcast. They do a very specific stylistic thing where they play snippets from longer interviews, then break in and have the host summarize some of what was said in the interview. Listen to enough of these, and you’ll see the patterns of why some answers are kept and shared with the world, while others get written out. It’s like an interviewing course all on its own.
I said it at the beginning of this, and I’ll say it again.
If you are serious about a career as a writer, you must learn to give and receive interviews.
It gives you a huge leg up on your competition. It helps you develop your own knowledge of your subject matter and your work. It can create opportunities for even further promotion.
I’m not saying it’s easy…but it’s exactly that simple. Start planning and practicing for your first interview today so you can give the best interview possible next quarter.
Looking to learn more about interviewing and networking? You’re in the right place!
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