How to Conduct Yourself (while conducting a TV interview)

How to Conduct Yourself (while conducting a TV interview)

My first freelance gig after working at the network level for 15 years was for a mid-sized TV prodco. I was on a shoot in Los Angeles conducting an extremely sensitive interview with someone who'd been molested. As I usually do, I had a list of bullet-pointed questions on my lap which I only refer to when needed; for the most part, my interviews are more like extended conversations.

When the interview was over, one of my associate producers was floored. I couldn't understand why. "Most producers just go down the list and tick the questions off one by one," she told me. "You just had a really natural conversation and got such better material than the other producers." I'd be lying if I didn't tell you I was flattered, but I was also shocked. Who works that way? It would make for the clunkiest interviews! People have to trust you, feel comfortable. The only way I know how to do that is to look them in the eye and talk to them as if they're your little brother or someone you're trying to draw out at a party.

Having done this for more than half my life and being pretty good at it, I will share some of the key elements  that will get you a great interview almost without fail.*

• DO YOUR HOMEWORK: Make sure you've chosen the best person for the interview (obviously). Read up on the subject and his or her involvement in the story. Try and ask specific questions, and not too many. Quality, not quantity.

PRE-INTERVIEW THEM: If you just show up at the shoot, don't expect them to bare their deepest, darkest secrets. You've got to warm them up and (as mentioned above) give them a level of comfort that they've chosen the right person to whom they will bare those secrets. Also it's nice to ask them if there's anything particular they want at the shoot. Bottled water, fruit, muffins, fine. I draw the line at male strippers and caviar.

LOOK THEM IN THE EYE: Always. Self-explanatory. And not just on interviews.

MIRROR THEIR BODY LANGUAGE: It's a way to bond and build trust.

LISTEN TO WHAT THEY SAY. Mirror what they say, not just what they do: "So you're telling me that (repeat what they just told you)" - this way they feel heard and understood. And then...

ASK FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS. Nothing more annoying in the edit room than listening to your field tape and you're missing the obvious follow up. So if the interviewee says "Even though it was 15 years ago I still can't think about it without wanting to punch a wall." Don't drop it there and skip onto the next subject...Probe! "Walk me through what happens when you think of it today. Get me inside that scary place in your mind."

SILENCE IS GOLDEN. Sometimes the best thing you can do is close your mouth. Sometimes in social situations I feel like I have to fill every space with words. But even I know how to shut it during an interview. I got one of the best sound bites of my career when I let a guy trail off and think about what he'd just said. After 10 or 15 seconds of uncomfortable silence he started crying, and then righted himself with a poignant remark. If I'd tried to nervously fill that void, I would've killed the moment. (And I wouldn't have won an Emmy for that particular piece.)

DON'T STARE AT A LIST OF QUESTIONS. That puts you off your game, which puts your interview off his or her game. Magic in the field equals magic in the edit room and ultimately, on television.

I HAVE TO SAY THIS OR MY EDITOR FRIENDS WILL KILL ME. Shoot tons of b-roll - as much as possible! Don't show up at the edit with a sit-down interview and one or two shots of your interviewee walking down a hall or the old cliché, cutting carrots. Your editor may not wring your neck but trust me, s/he'll want to.

I know my A.P. was blown away by my interview style but the truth is I was just doing what I do every day when I talk to friends, family, colleagues, cashiers, etc. It just happened that there was a camera crew filming it this time.

*There are people in this world who are dullards and plants. Like...there was nothing I was going to be able to do to get Robert De Niro to be loquacious when I interviewed him for Extra. I had to live with it. Other people are wind-up toys: wind 'em up and watch 'em go (Howard Stern, Quentin Tarantino, Lynn Redgrave, Al Sharpton, Jodie Foster, Jerry Seinfeld—and countless others I've interviewed over the years). Love the wind-up toys! But not much we can do about the quiet types except get through the painful interview and then leave them on the cutting room floor.

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