Preparation politeness and pauses.. the art of the interview

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By Lucy Lacock

A panel of journalists were at the Frontline Club last night to discuss "The Art of the Interview" and to pass on their knowledge about the way to get the most out of an interview and the interviewee.

Warren Etheredge, an interviewer, film analyst, writer, mentor to screenwriters and conversationalist who boasts over 15,000 interviews, was joined by Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News, and Razia Iqbal, BBC News special correspondent and presenter. Paddy O’Connell, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House was in the chair.

The evening was peppered with stories from the panel about times that they made their subjects cry, resign and being punched by former Labour chancellor Denis Healey – an experience Adam Boulton confessed to. Whilst all the journalists had their own tips for creating the perfect interview, the most resounding recommendation was the need to engage with the interviewee.

But the way that that should be done was the focus of a great deal of discussion: Responding to Adam Boulton’s argument that "you can start out at a level of being ruder to a politician" Warren Etheredge argued that regardless of whether the journalist is talking to a politician or a member of the public, the approach should be the same:

That’s a mistaken approach in my mind. I agree [that you have to engage the interviewee] but not by being rude to them. There’s no difference, they’re all people and I’m not there to get the facts, I’m there to get the truth and the truth is always most available to me if I present the people as individuals who I respect and want to engage with and want to hear from honestly.

There was also a great deal of discussion about the amount of preparation a journalist should do before an interview.

Warren Ehteredge said his big thing was to "prepare to be unprepared" and that he did all the background reading that he could so that he didn’t ask something "that has already been asked, so that I only ask those questions that I don’t know the answer to."

Razia Iqbal also emphasised the importance of good preparation:

It depends on what the context is. I wouldn’t interview an author without having read a lot of what they’ve written. With the half hour interviews that I’ve been doing I would not interview the writer unless I had read at least five of their novels. I think that that’s perfectly respectful and it’s the right thing to do, partly because a lot or writers assume that you’ve read nothing, that you’ve just done a hacks job of looking at Wikipedia, looking up a few interviews, so they are used to being asked the same questions.

Although the panel agreed that it was important to show interviewees the respect of preparing for the interview, Adam Boulton warned against prescriptive questioning techniques:

You can over-prepare. The big danger is that if they are answering question C and you’re already thinking about question D, they might say something really interesting that you don’t pick up on because you want to move on. After being prepared for the unprepared, the next tip is to listen to actually listen to what they are saying and be prepared to respond to it.

Warren Etheredge said that he did not prepare questions apart from the first one: I come up with an opening question and I think of seven ways that could go and I see if I am comfortable with going from there.

The panel emphasised the importance of building trust with the interviewee. They were all in agreement that the best interviews came when people felt at ease. Warren Etheredge cited an extraordinary example where Mexican director Guillermo del Toro was "so comfortable in this conversation" that he told a story about how he nearly killed a child who had violently bullied him, "which he said later he had never shared in public before and that he had never shared beyond his brother".

Some interesting techniques for drawing out the interviewee were also discussed, including the role of the pause.

Warren Etheredge said that in the United States, the media does not “allow for the pause”.

I really believe in letting that happen, he said, adding that one of the tips he was given by author Michael Lewis was:



You know Warren, the opposite of talking isn’t listening, it’s waiting and that is something I took away.