If you listen to my podcast with any regularity, you will find that my interviews are often conversations more so than question and answer type deals. There are reasons for that. I thought today because I don’t do craft too much on my blog, that I’d give an insight with how I approach interviews and what exactly I’m seeking when I do a podcast.
I started doing interviews at a site called comicbloc back in 2003. I had seen some of my favorite writers in comics such as Dirk Manning and others break into the industry and thought it would be a good path to start with. I figured that big name artists and creators would not be interested in chatting with me, so I made an emphasis on focusing my time with independent creators and publishers. Years later, I realize that my path hasn’t diverged as much as I thought it would, but I digress.
When you start doing interviews, questions and answers are a great start the ice breaking process. Questions to me are like small talk. It’s a way to find commonality with the interviewee. Generally I don’t know people very well the first time I meet them and have to figure out the ways to chip at the exteriors people have.
On a written platform, these kinds of interviews have a ton of merit. For one thing interviews are snapshots of the person you are engaging with. People want a sense of who the person or their project is on the other side of the process.
From a purposes of media, the big advantage is time. There are what, maybe two thousand words max you can do on a page like this? How many minutes does someone have reading an article from a mobile phone while they are on the train to work? Questions and answers really condense a topic into a very manageable kind of bite. Even on a podcast, if an interview is only about fifteen minutes, this works quite well. Questions and answers are great small talk, and in that kind of time, small talk works.
If this is the kind of interview you do, there are challenges with those limitations.
If you are going to do an interview like this, you need to figure out the story you want to tell. Interviews are storytelling as well, and you need to pick your angle. For one thing, how many questions do authors get about their appearance or genre or about a famous story they did. One of the biggest compliments I have received from my guests on my podcasts is that this isn’t a standard interview. I don’t ask the same questions anyone else does. I have a specific focus when I engage with the people I’m talking to. So my questions have to deal with that focus.
This lesson didn’t come quickly to me. I remember especially with my first few interviews that my questions were very generic. And that’s fine for a beginning. At some point though, you do need to ask yourself what you want to know about the person you are dealing with. Having that kind of planned out makes the questions that come to you easier.
Coming at someone with that kind of agenda may seem disingenuous, but the truth is very often you go in blind. It’s easier to engage with a subject if they have an idea of what they are talking about. Gradually I became more comfortable with the questions I was asking. This process took a few years.
I did it this way for years, even when I started doing interviews on my blog. Until I met Simon Rose.
Simon is an amazing children’s writer and publishes some outstanding books for that genre. I remember coming into the interview with about a page or so of questions. I threw those out of the window immediately after we started chatting. Simon was such an engaging individual on his own, that I realized that the questions I would ask him would get in the way. So I didn’t. I just did a back and forth conversation with him, which turned out quite well.
After interviewing Simon, I threw away the concept of questions. Don’t get me wrong, I still use them from time to time. Like I said, questions are like small talk. They are great to break the tension and get to know someone enough to engage in a conversation. But once you are through the ice, you need to have substance in the conversation. I am a big fan of Rolling Stone interviews with people. There is a real sense of a conversation being told in the magazine and I dig that. It feels realer, is more engaging, and it’s a better soundbyte.
I said above that questions and answers for about 15 minutes is engaging. If you’re good at them, you can do a half hour. After that though, I start to disengage. Maybe it’s because my attention span isn’t what it used to be, but I think it has more to do with the fact that questions and answers don’t sound real after a while. No one tlaks that way in real life. We engage in more of a back and forth and we improvise as we interact. That’s the real experience in enjoying someone’s company, and that’s the experience I try to accomplish on my podcast.
Most of the time it works. I have scared a number of guests when I say not to worry about questions beforehand. I don’t worry about what we are talking about. I have a couple of icebreakers but by and large, I really don’t have a gameplan, with a few exceptions.
The big advantage to my approach is that it feels organic. It’s more like how people talk, and it comes across much more genuine. Questions with this approach are used to continute the momentum of the conversation, but not drive it. This kind of interview really lets people see who the person is.
This approach does have a couple of flaws. The first one you can overcome, the second…not so much. The first one is that if you don’t have a goal with the conversation the chat will go everywhere. My goal with my podcast is to showcase who the person is. That is far more important to me than anything else going on. Because that is the goal, the interviews work. I’m not interested in making someone look bad, and it gives the person the freedom to talk about whatever they want to. If the goal is specific, the road to getting there doesn’t matter.
What does matter however, is if the person is comfortable enough to engage you on this level. Some people aren’t. And no matter how you try to find openings, they will only go so far. You have to accept that.
If I know I’m dealing with a guest like this, I develop a set course we start with. I find that some people are very guarded (rightfully so in some cases), but are open to back and forth on certain topics. Those interviews do require a little more care, and is maybe the middle of the road with the style I enjoy than question and answers.
Finally, I’ve learned to improvise. Every person you are talking to is different. Some people can laugh, some are intense. What everyone has in common is that everyone has a story. Your job as the person doing the interview is to find it. You ask questions, you engage, you talk. Their response tells you everything you need to to get a story.
It’s why I love my podcast. Every week there’s another story being told.