HOW TO INTERVIEW FOR TELEVISION
Interviewing for television is different to print. You are still trying to gather factual information but the demands are not the same.
This is the view of one of our nation’s greatest TV interviewers, Michael Parkinson, in an article for the Telegraph:
“I think the real tip for interviewing is listening. And that’s the tough one. It’s easy doing a print interview, because you can be discursive, you can chat, you can ramble, and then you go back to your office and you shape it whichever way you want. It’s in your hands. You can’t do that with television, you’re stuck with what you’ve got. So you’ve got to actually think of it immediately as being a beginning, middle and an end, a story complete. That’s what you want from the person you’re talking to. But that also involves doing a lot of research, having it in your mind, but you must listen, because they might say something that you don’t expect.”
When you plan a TV interview, start off by being honest with your subject. Don’t mislead them on what the programme or news item is about unless there is a public interest reason to do so, and don’t edit the footage in a misleading way afterwards. There are broadcast regulation guidelines in the Ofcom code that you must adhere to (link below).
Then ask yourself some questions:
- Why are you interviewing this person?
- How is this interview developing your news story?
- What are you trying to find out?
- Are you interested in their knowledge about a subject or their experiences of it?
Do your homework. Know as much about the topic being discussed as possible before turning up with your camera. Look professional in front of the interviewee, because a quick search on YouTube reveals how broadcast journalists and TV presenters working on live news programmes can be ridiculed if they don’t know their subject.
Once the interview is confirmed, plan it thoroughly. Watch this short BBC training video (link below) about self-shooting a TV interview.
For more information on framing, please read Tutorial 3 in this series which talks about it in detail. Remember to ask your subject to look at you throughout the interview, not the camera or anything else. You should also think about the location of your interview. Is it noisy? Are you near traffic or a children’s playground? Even indoors, are you near a busy staircase? Is the window open? Or can you hear the hum of a fridge or an air conditioning system in the corner of the room?
You want your interview to be framed as well as possible, and you don’t want to be distracted by random sounds that aren’t in shot. Sometimes these sounds aren’t instantly heard on location, so ensure you leave enough time to check the place properly. Believe me, your microphone will pick these noises up and you’ll notice them in the edit.
When you start recording, always wear headphones. This way you can pick up other unwanted distractions like your interviewee’s squeaky chair, for instance. Don’t be afraid to stop filming and correct a sound problem before carrying on.
The next thing to think about is lighting. If you’re filming outside, you’ll want the sunlight on your subject’s face. If indoors, use the daylight through a window to do the same. The other option is to bring your own lighting equipment. There will be a tutorial on lighting later in this series.
Once you are happy with the practical elements of the shoot, then you can give your questions a final consideration. Perhaps this is the right time to hear from another master of TV interviewing, Larry King.
TEN TIPS ON HOW TO INTERVIEW FOR TV
1) Make a list of short and direct questions. When filming an interview, my first question is often written out. Then I have a list of talking points that make up the rest of my interview plan. This gives me the flexibility to react to the answers I receive, yet still work to a well-researched interview plan.
2) Avoid telling the subject the exact questions in advance. Instead, give a general idea of talking points if you think this would be helpful to either secure the interview, or to make sure the interviewee is properly prepared.
3) Ask open not closed questions. This is very important because we want to hear the story from their point of view. Start your questions with ‘Why…’, ‘How…’, ‘Tell me about…’, ‘What do you think about…’ etc. This will invite the subject to deliver fully-rounded answers. Questions which begin with ‘How do you feel…’ are often criticised as being clichéd, and while they are certainly overused, they’re still a good way to get a human interest answer. Soundbites that begin with the words ‘I feel….’ often make the final cut because their convey emotion.
4) You want self-contained answers for your edit because your questions will probably not be used. Instead, a mix of soundbite quote and voiceover is likely to drive the story. If your subject is familiar with the process of being interviewed for television, politicians for example, they will be aware of this already and will try to start their answer with the essence of your question. This will enable the quote to stand alone.
- Your question: “What is your view on the government’s new policy about train fares?”
- Politician: “I think the government’s new policy on train fares is……..”
Here’s a tip that’s worked for me many times over the years. If you’re filming on location, and you know the answers you’re receiving to open questions are bitty and anything but self-contained, take a moment to explain this process to the interviewee. How starting their answer with the essence of your question will help you in the edit and make them sound more fluent. You’re not putting words in their mouth. You’re simply helping them come across better on television. They may well thank you for it afterwards.
5) Be relaxed and listen closely to the answers. Follow up interesting comments that aren’t on your interview plan but could reveal something new or unexpected for your story. Both Larry King and Michael Parkinson insist that listening to the answer carefully is THE most important thing for a successful interview. So have the flexibility to change track if needs be to get the best soundbites.
6) Don’t interrupt. You don’t want your voice to overlap with a good answer. You want that answer to have, in audio terms, a clean ‘in and out’. Remember, your questions probably won’t be used in the edit. Also, don’t make noisy reactions while listening to an answer, like agreeing with a point under your breath, etc. You may pick this up on microphone and be unable to cut it out without losing the best point made in the whole interview.
7) Don’t rush in with the next question. Leave a couple of seconds of silence first, in case the subject carries on with their answer. Someone who’s not used to this process won’t enjoy ‘dead sound’. It will feel uncomfortable and they will instinctively want to fill it, sometimes with information that’s more revealing than what they said before.
Michael Parkinson makes a good point about this in the interview for the Telegraph:
“The best lesson I ever learned from a television interviewer was from Alan Whicker. Alan had this wonderful facility to ask a question, and then get the answer, and then he’d pause and look. And what you understand after a while is that the person opposite to you, who’s less used to the interview process than you are, will say something first. And often what they say isn’t what they intended to say because it’s not in the script, so to speak, in their mind.”
8) Look smart. Look professional as well as act and sound professional.
9) At the end, ask if there are any points they would like to discuss that weren’t covered in the questions. Could lead to a must-have quote.
10) When filming is complete and the camera is put away, always schedule in a short time for a polite chat. It leaves a good impression because you may want to interview this person again in the future. Also, the chat could reveal other people to talk to or new angles to explore.