You’ve got your presentation style sorted, you’re confident and you’re comfortable performing. So what happens when you throw another person into the mix? Contributors, guests, panellists, callers – they all add texture to your programme, podcast or conference, but your job is to get the best out of them for the audience.
Here are the things to consider before you get into it…
1.Research Your Guest
A sure fire way to make your interview go on longer than you need it to is to get your guest to tell their story ‘from the beginning’. This is fine if you are pre-recording and you have the time to edit. But if you are live you are going to need to get to the point as soon as you can.
Researching your guest means you can set the scene for them in your introduction. I say to my clients “you hold the who and what, your guest holds the why and the how”.
A well-researched interview can drive the conversation forward faster too. Imagine being able to say “you must have been having a tough time then because you were also trying to launch a community centre” rather than “so what was that like?”
Tip: It’s not always possible, but it’s good to speak to your guest before you interview them. It reassures them and it means you can suss out some of the best stories before you are on stage / on air with them.
2. The Basics: Who, What, Where, Why, When, How?
When working up your research and deciding what to ask, start with the basic questions. Make sure your audience understands who you are talking to, what they are talking about (the when and where fits in here). This is the information you need to be able to run a great interview.
One of my clients had a guest on their panel show talking about a vegan festival he was running. It wasn’t until he got on air that she discovered he wasn’t vegan. In listening back we realised there were no vegans in the room, but all the prep assumed there would be a vegan in the room. The whole segment lost its credibility. Even with the biggest of production teams, it’s easy to assume you have all the information – so questions like what, where, when, who questions will uncover all the context you need.
Stories hide in the hows, whys and “what reason”. Questions like “How did you make that happen?” or “why did you decide to do that?” then get the answers you need from your guest. Note that “what was the reason?” is a softer way of asking “why?”
3. Make It A Conversation: Listen
Have clarity about what you want to hear your guest speak about, come with a list of well-researched questions, and then the key to a great interview is to listen to what the guest says to get that second question in. This makes it more like a conversation.
Listen out for chunked up language and get the detail on it. For example:
Interviewer: “What were you like as a child?”
Guest: “I grew up in Birmingham, and my parents would probably tell you I was a wild child, but I remember it being a happy time.”
Interviewer: “When you say wild child, what did you get up to?” or “What was it like in Birmingham at that time?” or “what made it a happy time?”
The stories are in the examples, listening allows you to ask the follow-up question (which may also be a challenging question too – see 5)
4. Open, Closed and Non-Question-Questions
Open questions allow your guest to tell a story, create opinion, share knowledge and experience. Closed questions have one word or short answers. Both are useful and a mixture of both questions can make for a good interview. Closed questions are particularly good for wrapping up an interview.
Depending on your guest you might find that they are keen to talk, in which case even a closed question will bear fruitful answers. One of the best ways to bring something out of your guest is to share your own experience or story as part of the question – this is the Non-Question-Question. These questions don’t really have a question mark at the end and can start a bit like: “In my experience” or “I’ve done that before and I found x y z” makes it sound like you are chatting and it gives the guest the opportunity to share their story.
I’ve written about this before – confrontation is something people avoid, but by failing to challenge your guest you are failing to give them the opportunity to give a stronger more thought out answer.
You can soften the challenge with language like “What do you say to people who say…?” or “Some people may be thinking…”.
Often the challenge is about being curious and hunting down the why and the how of your guest’s point of view.
6. Know When To Move It On
While you should listen and acknowledge your guest, sometimes you are on a time limit and you have to wrap it up. And sometimes they are saying the same thing over and over again – it’s time to move it on. Don’t be afraid to politely interrupt them, challenge them or ask a closed question.
Ultimately, a good interview is about getting the guest to enlighten the audience. Researching, challenging and being curious will help you to get to the gold and fast.
I like Coldplay… I really do.
In the alternative music stations I worked at, it wasn’t the “done thing” to admit this – but if you’ve ever been to a Coldplay gig, you’ll just know. In fact on New Year’s Eve my husband and I found ourselves glued to their gig on the telly recounting just how good they were when we went to see them in Manchester the year before.
Why do I like Coldplay?
Well because they “speak to me”… (no really)
Take the lyrics to “Fix You” :
“If you try your best, and you don’t succeeeeeed”
Well, actually, yes I have tried my best a million times and I haven’t succeeded! How did they know I failed at so many things?
“If you get what you want, but not what you neeeeeed”
Well, actually, yes I know what this is. I remember the time Mr C and I decided that he should work away from home because it was a great opportunity and we wanted him to do it, but then it played havoc with the needs of our relationship… How did Coldplay know I felt like that?!
Coldplay songs use language the same way that politicians and horoscopes use language. It’s “Chunked Up”.
The power of chunked up language is that the people listening to it can add their own conclusion. When Trump promised to “Make America Great Again” those followers can add their own opinions to that. When Obama said “Yes We Can” those followers could will whatever change they believed in.
In short, using language in this way is highly influential and powerful.
The language may appeal to many but the source is in the personal. When you feel something, or think something, or observe something human you can almost guarantee that there is a universal emotion or experience in it.
For example: like when I put a pair of socks in the washing machine, no matter how many times I think I’ve nailed it: only one comes out! Where does it go??
In presenting to a group of people I might say: “You know that moment you can’t find the other sock?!” – this is open enough for them to engage their own experience but it is based in my one experience.
You can keep chunking up though until you reach: “If you try your best, but you don’t succeed” 🙂
So you can use this sort of language to engage people on a larger level and to create your powerful message. However, when you are in a one to one situation and you are listening in an interview, or coaching, situation these chunked up lines are the ones to challenge.
They may come out like this: “Everyone thinks that Brexit is a bad idea”
The reply question might be “Who is ‘everyone’?”
Or “Research says that people cannot survive in this environment”
The reply might be “what research is that?” Or “what is it about that environment specifically?”
Or when your boss says: “We need to own the patch”
The reply might be “what does that look or sound like?”
The coolest thing ever about chunking up is that in a disagreement if you keep chunking up the ideas and the intent (not just the language) you will find that quite often you agree with each other. Then it is about finding the way to work out the route to getting the results you want.
So, use chunking up, and listen out for it, as it will help you gain clarity and followers! And also, Coldplay, yes?
I hear this a lot. Often it’s something that’s said to avoid a difficult conversation, or an uncomfortable situation in the office. It’s a limiting belief that can mean inauthentic relationships are formed, and that progress on a project is halted.
A few weeks ago I used Emma Willis’ example of holding Roxanne Pallet to account as a “comfortable confrontation”. Emma used some of the techniques I talk about in this article.
For radio presenters “I don’t do confrontation” is the reason given for not holding guests or contributors to account. It’s understandable to feel that way, as you are often thankful for contributors and guests being on your show. Asking difficult questions feels unfair, out of character or ungrateful.
The reality is that difficult conversations are likely to happen every single day on air, or in the office. Here are some of the tips I give to help you through that unavoidable awkwardness, and to get the best from the guest.
1. Make sure you know what you want
Make sure you have a good understanding of what you want out of the conversation before you enter in to it. Set your intent. It might be to be kind, or to get the answers that your audience (or you) deserve. As a result, you will have to ask the question that plays devil’s advocate to get the answer you want.
When interviewing someone on the radio about a Cheese Festival the question: “So what are the reasons people like cheese?” Would get you so far. But “why are you celebrating cheese, it’s just a silly piece of dairy isn’t it?” Could get you a stronger, more interesting answer.
2. Check your language
If going at it directly like this is too uncomfortable, you can distance yourself in your language to take the emotion and the personal attack out of it.
Firstly – argue the idea, evidence or behaviour, not the person. The minute you go to personal language like “you’re an idiot for thinking what you think” you have lost the productivity of the conversation.
A therapist of mine suggested to me to use the word “I” in conflict, rather than “you”. In broadcasting I am constantly telling people to use the word “you” as a way to engage their listener. It’s the most powerful word you can use for this. But in the context of difficult conversations it can be a useful tool to use I: “What I am seeing is <example> behaviour which is implying to me…” rather than “You are a really difficult person”.
On the radio it works to use phrases like “Some people might say that this is a silly Festival for Cheese – is it?” or. “What do you say to someone who says that thinks this Festival is a silly idea?”
3. Agreeing is Partial (not Impartial)
I recently spent a day coaching new radio presenters, practicing their interview technique. Their brief was to remain impartial. Presenter after presenter interviewed their contributor consistently grateful, constantly agreeing with them and guess what – it was dull. That may be unfair, but I didn’t really learn anything from the interviews. It is a common mistake to think that impartiality sits in agreeing. It’s actually the opposite.
In the on air interview, or if you are hosting a panel, it is your job to make sure you are covering the information from all angles. Using the language above (e.g. “Some people might say…”) you can put forward an opinion that may not be yours, without having to attach yourself to it. This can make the feeling of confrontation a little easier.
My husband really enjoys a debate. One time we agreed that we would go out on a family day out at 11am. At about 10.30 he and his aunt got locked into a debate about politics of some sort. We all sat there till 1pm till they came to their conclusion.
I mean, he REALLY loves a debate.
I used to hate it. My skin would crawl. I’d feel shame and discomfort. I would want to hide. And let’s be honest, no one really wants to sit around for 2 hours while you’re waiting for a heated discussion to be finished!
But then I wondered what would happen if I leaned in to it. He loves it, I would be gutted if he dismissed one of the things I love. So I decided to try joining in, rather than shutting it down, and use it as a means of practice. For some people they like the opportunity to intellectually spar, and it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about learning.
Even so, it’s so hard not to get emotional, or take it personally! But with him, I am in a safe space. He knows me, I can get my words wrong, I can correct myself, I can practice what it is to be devil’s advocate, to call things out I don’t agree with. The outcome is I am getting better at forming my words and questions in what can be an emotional state & I am better at speaking up in other situations too. And, I think my husband and I have actually found a place to connect a little more.
So find someone to practice with.
I have had to fire people, I have had to deal with getting people to realise they are making mistakes, and I have had to deal with conversations about my own work and behaviour that have been really tough. In every situation the one piece of advice that has helped is this: it’s supposed to feel uncomfortable.
For years I thought there was “a way” to make the uncomfortable, comfortable. There are ways to make things less uncomfortable, but some conversations are always going to be difficult.
Once I embraced the discomfort, I was able to come to terms with understanding that conflict can be a route to growth, that it was something to practice and commit to getting to a more interesting place.