Conducting a Good Television Interview

A picture of reporters holding microphones and interviewing someone
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A TV interview can be as simple as asking questions of people on the street, or it can be as involved as a one-on-one, sit-down discussion with the president. Getting good answers in a TV interview can make a news story come to life and build your reputation as a probing journalist. Build your skills so that you can lead the people you interview into giving you the information you want with simple TV interview tips every news media professional can use.

Decide the TV Interview Focus

Sometimes, all you want from an interview are some facts. If you're talking to the fire chief on the scene of a huge fire, you want to know the typical "who, what, when, where, why and how." As long as you get answers to these basic questions, your needs are satisfied.

But that's not the kind of TV interview that can help you win media awards or help you build a job-winning resume tape or DVD. You need to demonstrate that your skills go beyond asking simple questions.

If you are interviewing a man whose wife was killed in a tornado, you want to prepare your questioning to draw out as much emotion as possible. Instead of asking something like, "What time did the tornado hit?", you'll get more by asking, "What will your life be like without your wife by your side?" Notice that's an open-ended question that will give you a meatier answer than something like, "Are you sad your wife is gone?" which could only produce a simple, "Yes."

For investigative work, you may need to ask preliminary questions to get your subject to relax before you hit her with the question you really want to ask. It's tough to start an interview with a highly-charged question such as, "Do you feel your boss sexually harassed you?" unless the person has already filed a lawsuit.

Learn Something About the Topic

If you're assigned to cover the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate, asking the candidate "What's the Libertarian Party?" is a giveaway that you didn't come to the interview prepared. If you find yourself in that situation, it's better to camouflage your lack of knowledge by asking, "For people who don't understand what the Libertarian Party is all about, how would you put it into words?"

Better still is to know that answer before the interview so that you can ask smarter questions. The goal is to find out answers to questions that viewers would want to know.

Some interviewers go overboard to ask the most complicated, technical question they can find to demonstrate their own personal grasp of a subject. While that may inflate their ego, it's wasted effort if the answer doesn't interest the people watching the news report.

Listen Closely During the Interview

Amazingly, this is one of the most common mistakes interviewers make. They are so wrapped up in planning their next question that it's obvious that they're not even listening to the conversation.

Here's an example of that: The mayor says, "I have failed my city and have decided that I must resign from office. I apologize for my poor performance in office and ask all residents to forgive me." The interviewer: "So when's the next city council meeting?"

An interview is a conversation; you just happen to have a microphone, camera, and notepad. Concentrating too much on the mechanics will prevent you from getting the most out of the discussion.

One aspect of listening is to not immediately jump in with your next question the moment the person stops talking. If you wait for a second or two, while maintaining eye contact, often the person will keep talking. That is useful if you are asking a question that is difficult to answer.

The person will sense that the pause means you're not satisfied with what you've heard and are waiting for more. If you seek to get the person to admit to something, that pause can be the trick that throws the person off-balance enough to get him to say what you want.

Ask Follow-up Questions During the Interview

If you're listening during the interview and are not content with the answers you're getting, ask follow-up questions to get the information you want. Otherwise, you'll return to the newsroom and discover that while you recorded a ten-minute interview with your U.S. senator, you didn't get any information.

Politicians are masters of what some call the "non-answer answer." You ask, "Will you support raising taxes?" and the answer you get is that the economy is bad, people don't like paying taxes, yet that's the money required to build schools and roads. You need to follow that idle chatter with, "But are you voting for a tax increase?" to let the senator know that you expect a direct answer and will keep asking until you get it.

Asking follow-up questions requires not just listening, but flexibility. You may have your list of ten questions on your notepad, but if the conversation veers into an unplanned direction, you need to have something to ask. While planning is important, so is reacting to what you are hearing.

Sometimes follow-up questions have to challenge someone's answer. Other times, you may find follow-ups help you better understand a complicated answer. If you're not sure what someone means, it's better to say, "Explain it to me," than it is to get back to the newsroom and realize you can't write your story because you didn't understand what the person was talking about.

Allow the Person to Speak Freely

Another useful technique when wrapping up an interview is to ask, "Is there anything else you'd like to say?" Sometimes, you've simply forgotten to ask the most basic question. This is the person's opportunity to answer it or say something else of value.

A person who might have been afraid of being interviewed and gave you nothing but timid answers could use this time to open up. "I'd just like to add that if it weren't for the firefighters who saved my life, I wouldn't be here. I'll be forever grateful for their bravery," is a comment that could go into your story even though you didn't ask for it directly.

Barbara Walters and Larry King are two people who made careers of mastering the TV interview. While you may be interested in other aspects of television that just conducting interviews, sharpening your skills will set you apart from the masses in the industry.