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How to Interview Like a Journalist

Updated

Take a note from reporters to host interviews that illuminate and inspire.

When you think of “interview,” you probably start with Lester Holt or Barbara Walters. But interviews aren’t just for exposing corruption or pressing the Kardashians about their new flames.

Compelling interviews also create captivating marketing content. Done well, they can educate your audience, spread brand awareness, support your brand’s value proposition and contribute to sales, all in 20 or 45 minutes. 

And as shown by the popularity of podcasts and video content, audiences are craving more credible, expert-based and narrative-driven content. So consider good interviews a non-negotiable part of your content strategy. 

Key word: good. If you’re trotting out the same canned questions as every other Gary V wannabe, all you’ll get are canned quotes that your listeners have already seen on Google. 

No, you don’t need to become Christiane Amanpour overnight. But in the course of an interview, you do need to entertain your audience, tie in your brand’s value proposition and subtly encourage guests to follow-up—all while maintaining a friendly, effortless conversation with the guest. 

Harder than it looks—and much more art than science. So take a note from reporters to host interviews that illuminate and inspire:

Research, research, research

Combat canned questions with information and context to place it in. Before the interview, research your guest’s background for any interesting nuggets of information. Then place their background, experience and expertise in the context of your audience. 

Cool, now what does that mean? Use these questions to generate better questions and a deeper storyline for your interview: 

  • What will resonate most with your audience members and why? Are there any stories that will lend themselves to compelling quotes?  
  • How has that person’s background prepared them for their current work? This can really shape an interview and challenge assumptions if the person has an unconventional work history or background. 
  • How is this person’s experience either a reflection or an aberration from that of your industry as a whole? This is a good launch point to discuss industry issues and trends, all through a more personal lens. 

Rich Roll, host of the much-acclaimed Rich Roll Podcast, demonstrates how that context can strengthen the whole interview. He comes into each episode with a rich understanding of the guest’s expertise and personal experiences, so he’s able to tell the audience a) how the guest’s experiences inform their work today and b) why the audience should care, in a powerful and convincing way. 

Establish a rapport right away

Nothing sucks the air out of a room like a stiff conversation. Dead air, awkward pauses and empty statements, oh my.  

So once you’ve booked your guests, your biggest goal is to get them comfortable—comfortable enough to project well, comfortable enough to go beyond their talking points, comfortable enough to share personal, sometimes vulnerable, information themselves and their journeys. That process should start well before they're in your studio.

Though every person and situation is different, start by telling the guest what to expect. Send them a document with questions you’re planning to ask, introduce them to the interviewer, and tell them how their expertise and experience relates to your podcast’s broader narrative. This way, they’ll know how to structure their story to meet your needs. 

Your guests can also flag any “off limits” topics—and feel more comfortable going on “stage.” Though that's a big faux pas in journalism, it’s an important assurance of privacy in marketing. Since your guests are in the business world, it’s likely they’re not experienced in going on the record. Even if they are, it still communicates that you care about their comfort level, which will help you connect more quickly. 

“Warn them that some of the questions might be tough and could make them feel uncomfortable, but remind them that it’s a safe space,” said Ken Wheaton, published novelist and former editor-in-chief of AdAge. “It’s not ‘gotcha’ journalism. I find doing that makes people more relaxed and less likely to answer in a way that sounds scripted.”

Keep it conversational

Do. Not. Read. Your. Questions. Off. A. Script. It didn’t work for your college professor and it won’t work for you. Memorize your questions, or keep them on a piece of paper in front of you, but from there, conduct a free-flowing back and forth.  

Keep it conversational, but remember that there are other people in the “room.” Just like you’d introduce the rest of your friends to the new guy in the room, introduce your guest to listeners, explain what value they’ll provide throughout the episode, and provide context at the beginning and between questions. If your guest gets jargony or mentions something you haven’t covered yet, don’t be afraid to (gently) cut in to keep the conversation and your viewers on track. 

Let the guest shine

The secret spice of an interview is your guest. They’re the outside voice whose perspective is shaping the episode and unless you’re Joe Rogan or Ira Glass, the voice your audience cares about most. 

Sounds obvious, right? But when you’re behind the microphone, worried about getting all your points in and entertaining your audience, it’s really easy to accidentally interrupt or overshadow your guest. Give your guest the space they need to organize their thoughts before they speak.

More often than not, that means sitting with your stress as you wait for them to wow your audience—and that's totally normal.

And if you stick with, and only with, your script, you’re inserting your own narrative into the interaction, and not letting your guest share the wisdom you want your guests to hear in the first place. And when you and your interviewer are gaining steam, shoehorning the conversation back toward the “scheduled” agenda can stall the momentum in service of an artificial goal. 

As long as you’re generally following the course of your conversation, these slight tangents add character that makes your dialogue more productive and three-dimensional.

Come up with 10-15 questions, then prioritize the top 3

“But if we go off-script, how are we going to cover everything we need to cover?” You probably won’t cover every single thing, and that’s OK. 

The point of the interview is to use your guest’s unique voice, story and insights to support your episode’s narrative. So use it to your advantage.

Start the episode with the first two or three questions that are absolutely necessary to discuss the topic of the episode. From there, let the conversation wander slightly in response to what your guest shares. 

As both an interviewer and a listener, I can say it’s more interesting to have a slightly winding conversation, full of surprising revelations and “real talk moments,” than a host reading off 10 questions and a guest dutifully reciting the answers, cutting themselves off after 4.5 minutes and moving to the next one.

Don’t (just) be a hype man 

When you’re hosting someone on an episode you want to go well, you’ve got a strong incentive to make the person comfortable. Since marketers don’t have the same absolute obligation to objectivity as journalists, it’s tempting to let things slide for the sake of harmony. 

But if you only give your guests softballs, they won’t be incentivized to provide you with anything revealing or original. This creates a flat and uninformative product at best, and a dishonest one at worst. And if that’s the case, you may as well link to your guest’s latest press release and call it a day. Push a little bit (tactfully) and reap the rewards of a richer conversation. 

You don’t need to turn it into a debate, but playing devil’s advocate encourages your guests to consume the interview more critically and intelligently. And if you get your listeners thinking, they’ll be thinking about your brand too… long after they log out. 

Want to learn more about how the world's most innovative companies are using online events to drive business results? BigMarker's team of Account Executives is here to help! Contact us at sales@bigmarker.com to get started or schedule a demo.


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