The art of the interview: it’s not about you.

Radio and Television personalities are selfish, self-centered, egomaniacs; and thank goodness for it!  It takes a brave and trusting soul to reveal themselves to the world on the radio.  Imagine your favorite personality or anchor void of personality; now stop before you fall asleep.  To be  a personality you must be willing to sacrifice yourself at the altar of content.  The danger, even for the best-of-the-best, is that making yourself the star of the show, at every turn, is the only skill you’ll have.  The best personalities can have others on their show and make it about them.  Can you do it?  Are you an excellent interviewer?

How do you feel when somebody takes a genuine interest in your hobbies, health or family?  Good.  You feel GOOD.  You like the neighbor who drops you a Christmas card and remembers your dog’s name.  She’s the neighbor who asks “how was your weekend?” and when you answer “Good. We went to the cabin.”  She asks “where is your cabin? that sounds like fun” in such a way that shows interest.  It makes you feel good because it’s about you.   Your neighbour asks for more depth (where is the cabin?) and is starting a great interview.  This is how you should start your interviews – with the goal of making your subject feel wanted and important;  because they are.

Becoming a master interviewer starts with remembering that it’s not about you.  Your guest’s story is what counts and it’s your job to get it from them.  Ivor Shapiro writes in The Bigger Picture, “Every interview should be an exploration for interesting, factual, informative, and visual detail.  It is not simply a question-and-answer exchange…when done well, it involves getting to the heart of an issue and to the very soul of a person.”  (Shapiro, 2011, p.136)

Now that you’re ready to focus on your subject and their story, it’s time to do some research.  Read the wikipedia page, surf their website and social media hubs, then dig deeper.

Read the liner notes.  Look at the lyrics.   Ask around about their last visit to the city.  Get creative. Why start every interview the rest of your career with a blank Microsoft word page and the thought “alright…what shall I ask Mr. So-and-So?”

A master or emergency list of questions is a great tool to have at arms-reach.  Not every question needs to apply to every person, but it a great jumping off point.

To get you started, here’s the most rewarding question I have ever asked a musician in my 12 year media career:

What were you doing when you first heard your music on the radio?

I asked Tom Cochrane that question once and the answer was a thing of beauty.  I must have played the 25 second soundbite he gave me that day 50 times in my life; I still have the clip on cd.  His answer was something along the lines of:

It was the middle of the night.  We were driving from tour-stop to tour-stop somewhere outside of Winnipeg.  It was the middle of the night.  It was the dead of winter.  Our van didn’t have heat.  It was my turn to drive and the rest of the guys were sleeping.  When all of the sudden “White Hot” came on the radio.

Tom tells the story much better (ask him some day if you get the chance) but the details he provided and the passion in his voice were sharp as a knife. I felt like he was answering the question for the first time in his life, and maybe he was.


2 responses to “The art of the interview: it’s not about you.

  1. you interviewed tom cochrane?! that’s awesome. i’m sure he isn’t the quote-unquote biggest or most recognizable name off the list of people you’ve interviewed. but damn – he was the canadian bruce springsteen in my house.

  2. Tom is one of the great Canadian rockers. I have an autographed copy of “Trapeze: The Greatest Hits” in my collection, and to this day, it’s one of my favorites.

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