Some personalities are naturally good interviewers. Others are horrible, and no matter how much they work at it, they just don’t seem to get it right. After all, just like in a relationship, you just can’t change the person more than 5 or 10%. But everyone can improve interview skills.
With a little time and attention, these skills can be a most useful weapon in the personality’s arsenal. And it’s not just skills that apply to guests on your show. When you improve interview skills, you’ll become better with phone callers and interacting with co-hosts.
5 Ways To Improve Interview Skills
There are many ways to make a guest appearance work. Follow these guidelines to grow your skills from boring to interesting:
Do Your Homework
Most personalities know their subject matter well enough, but too often preparation is generic. They haven’t gotten past the typical questions and answers.
Seriously: How many times have you heard a celebrity asked, “Who was your biggest influence?” Boring!!!!
Dig deeper to be truly prepared for the interview. That will improve your chances of getting a response that will make your audience sit up and take notice.
It’s easy research your material on the internet. Find out all you can about your guest. That familiarity will lead to a confidence and comfort zone when the interview is underway.
Larry King is one of the all-time great interviewers. His method was to force himself to think like a listener. All of his interviews were conducted from the audience’s perspective!
Get away from the “where are you going next” type questions. Nobody really cares. Instead, ask about their best and worst experiences on the road.
Here’s an example from Geoff & Dana at 93.7 The Breeze in Vero Beach. When they talked to Leann Rimes, Geoff did some research and found out that she doesn’t like to be tickled. This minor character trait turned into a charming and memorable moment on the air.
In the first part of the interview, she says hello and you can tell that she’s not excited about being on. But listen to how Geoff organically asks about tickling. She lights up, is suddenly interested and they have a discussion that Leann has never had on the air before.
This opens the door to a terrific interview segment.
Make Your Guest Comfortable
The more comfortable they are with your studio, your people and your environment, the better the interview will go.
So ask your guest to arrive early, if it’s an in-studio interview. It warms them up and makes them sound more involved in your show. This is a small detail that makes a big difference when conducting live interviews.
If your interview is via phone, try to get a few minutes with them in advance to establish a relationship. Just a couple of minutes can make the difference between being distant and detached or closer and more intimate.
When the interview begins, relax. In fact, don’t think of it as an interview at all. Make it a conversation.
Conversations are far more compelling. They’re interesting. And more relatable.
Here’s the difference.
An interview usually flows like this:
You: New Question
Guest: New Answer
You: New Question
Guest: New Answer
It’s stiff, almost scripted.
The personality asking questions is so focused on asking the next question they don’t actually hear the response. And they fail to pick up on verbal cues that can be the most interesting part of the conversation.
Meanwhile, the guest is so accustomed to answering the same questions, they often don’t really hear the question. They go into auto-pilot.
Change the interview into a conversation like this:
You: Respond to the answer
Guest: Responds to your response
You: Respond to their response
Guest Responds to Your response
Do you see how this conversation flows naturally? It starts with the same question, but the performers allow exploration of the topic.
Embrace The Silence Gap
How many times have you heard an air personality ask a question, then just as the response gets interesting, they ask another question? Talent has a tendency to fill pauses with talk. But silence can be one of the most powerful tools for an interviewer.
Magicians Penn & Teller are brilliant entertainers highly skilled in the art of communication. They know how to delight the audience by framing their content (magic tricks) with personality. They call it the Silence Gap.
In a CBS TV interview, Lee Cowan asked them,
Does it ever get awkward for you not to talk? It’s awkward for me to do an interview with someone I know isn’t going to answer any questions!
Teller shrugged, then explained,
Not speaking is just about the most intimate thing that you can do.
Pausing, Cowan filled the silence gap:
Intimate in terms of …
See? You felt like you had to speak. If we just stop, and look at each other, that gets intimate fast, and that’s what I feel when I’m on stage.
Many personalities miss magical moments because they feel a need to avoid “dead air”. It’s human nature to fill a silence gap, and if you don’t do fill it, your guest will. That’s when the best responses usually happen.
This extends to phone calls, too. The listener will tell you how they feel if you let them, but it won’t be the first thing that pops into their mind.
Know the Answers
A good lawyer doesn’t start a line of questioning if they don’t already know the answers. If you’ve done your homework, you should know what to expect. And if you know what to expect, you can construct the interview in a way that builds drama and expectation.
TV talk hosts use screeners for pre-interviews to make sure the conversation goes the way they want it. Based on the pre-interview, they can eliminate questions that will be less interesting! You may not be able to conduct a pre-interview, but you can improve your chances for success by imagining how the interview will go.
However, there’s a danger in knowing too much. Sometimes, personalities tend to answer their own questions with a long, fact-filled question. One of the most common mistakes is leaving the guest with nothing more than a “yes or no” answer.
Make sure questions are brief, clear and lead to a longer, detailed response.
DeDe in the Morning on K104/Dallas is a great interviewer. When Deion Sanders was on with them, DeDe took on a topic most personalities would stay away from: Suicide. This led to a powerful, emotional segment with Deion revealing some heartfelt emotion.
This segment was one break in a series with Deion, but without a doubt the most powerful.
Encourage Deeper Engagement
In that segment, did you notice how the show allowed Deion to go deeper when he talked about his personal thoughts of suicide while at the top of his career? They didn’t get in the way or get uncomfortable with the conversation.
They not only practiced Penn & Teller’s Silence Gap technique, they encouraged Sanders to open up by going into some awkward and uncomfortable territory.
The station is hip-hop and R&B, and rarely talks religion, but when Deion shared his story about turning to Christianity, DeDe was in the moment. She went with it. That took courage. This can’t happen if you’re focused on your next question. It requires the confidence to listen and respond.
This was the surprising, left-turn moment. The unexpected twist made this an unforgettable moment for the show.
Stephen Colbert is known as a comedian, but has a gift of engaging his guests to get deeper with them. His tactic: First, ask a question they don’t expect, and show sympathy. Watch how Colbert interviewed Joe Biden on his late night TV show:
This takes courage, confidence and it takes some time to dig into the guest’s life.
Do some research and find out what your guest is really passionate about. Talk about something that excites them.
Good interviews are hard, but you can improve your performance with a little time and attention to these skills. Mastering these 5 techniques won’t make a bad interview great, but it will improve your chances of getting more value from those guests.
Join me for A Guide to Better Interviews, a free webinar at 1pm EDT on July 10. It’s free to attend, but advance registration is required. Sign up now here.