Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What does it take to be a good interview guest?

The New York Times took a look at the U.S. Sunday morning political talk shows, and in pointing out that they tend to feature the same politicians over and over again (Senator John McCain is a favorite), the article leaves a trail of breadcrumbs from which you can glean what makes a good guest on an interview program:
When it comes to a dream guest, program hosts say, Mr. McCain checks almost every box: a senior Republican senator who can speak authoritatively and contemporaneously on many issues, flies secretly to Syria, compares members of his own party to deranged fowl and yet is a reliable opponent of most Obama administration policies. “What makes a good guest is someone who makes news,” said Mr. Wallace, the Fox host. “To make news, you have to be at the center of the news and willing to talk about it in a noncanned way, someone who always come to the shows ready to play.”
Put another way, you've got to have an opinion--ideally one that flies in the face of the prevailing messages out there--and be willing and able to share it with authority:
“In order to deal with complexity but also create a basis for entertainment,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center, “you need someone who knows what they are talking about who is pursuing daylight between themselves and the administration.”
I've come to like the term "guest," because most would-be interviewees rarely think of themselves that way. It's not just about what you want to say. You're being invited to a discussion, a very public one, but a discussion, nonetheless. Holding up your end of that conversation well means letting the interviewer have a chance to ask questions--even the ones you don't like--and answering them without taking up all the oxygen in the studio.

MSNBC host Chris Hayes shared more insights you can use in this recent FreshAir interview. In a meta kind of moment, his interview turns into an interview about interviews, starting with his answer when host Terry Gross asked him what he tells guests right before they start the program:
HAYES: ....in fact normal human conversation does not consist of a succession of declamations by individuals but in fact people asking each other questions. And so everything that I say before the interview is to try to get people in the mindset of forget the cameras, forget that we're on television, forget the commercial breaks. We are just trying to genuinely have a conversation in which we relate to each other like actual curious human beings. 
GROSS: So one of the things that drives me mad sometimes is sometimes a guest will come on the show and think, oh, it's public radio, I can relax, I don't have to speak in soundbites. And instead of speaking in soundbites, they'll make like 15 minute speeches, which is not good either. 
HAYES: That's not a hint to me, right? 
GROSS: No. (LAUGHTER) But do you have to also reign in your guests if they're - this is more shop talk - if they're talking like too long, what do you do? 
HAYES: Yeah, I interrupt them, and I move things along. I mean you can't be shy about that. I'm very aware while we're sitting there that we are on live television and that, again, every second of air time is precious and that I want to keep the pace of the conversation going. And so if things seem to come to a stall, if someone seems to be going on too long, there's a bunch of nonverbal cues that I'll send them, and I'm sort of looking at them, nodding my head with more vigor than usual, as in OK, let's get to the point.
These insights tell you that being a good guest also means having a good balancing act: They want you to talk, but not to fill all the time allotted. They want you to have an opinion, but leave room for other views to be aired. So if the host's nodding too vigorously or getting "too interrupty," as Hayes terms it, take your cue and end that sentence, or let someone else on the panel have a turn. Sometimes, it's a simple as reminding yourself to respond, rather than react, to another person's statement. After all, there's plenty about an interview that you can't control, but you should be able to control how and when you react.

To see an extreme example of someone who didn't glean these tips (and does so purposefully), take a look at American shockjock and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones appearing on the British version of the Sunday political shows, BBC One Sunday Politics. (Thanks to my UK correspondent Peter Botting for sharing this one with me.) There's a news package about the topic at hand, a secret meeting of government officials, then an in-studio discussion in which Jones stomps all over good interview guest behavior. By contrast, note that the host and the other guest manage to disagree with him quite pointedly without having to resort to the same tactics. The meltdown starts a little bit past the six-minute mark, calms down, and progresses again at about 7:39 and 8:55, when Jones just shouts over the others, non-stop.  It is well worth watching through to the very end, where host Andrew Neil declares "You are the worst person I've ever interviewed," and "We have an idiot on the program today!"

Now, get out there and try not to make the same impression. Check out my all-in-one post on answering media interview questions, and if you need media training, email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.


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