Hack33.Record Great Interviews

Hack 33. Record Great Interviews

Finding the right people to talk to, and having the right form, can mean the difference between a compelling story and a stifled mess. Learn the techniques the pros use.

Getting the perfect interview is a combination of getting the right guest, doing the preparation, and having the right techniques, both technically and personally. This hack will walk you through everything you need to know. And if this doesn't satisfy your needs be sure to check the Transom (http://www.transom.org) site for even more on interviewing techniques.

5.2.1. Preparation

The best way to prepare for an interview is to do your homework. Hit the Web and find out all you can about the person you will be interviewing. Take lots of notes in a text editor or in an outliner application. Once you think you have exhausted what you can find out about the interviewee and the subject of the interview, you should organize your notes to make them easy to search through as you are developing your questions.

The next step is to find a perspective. In his book Radio Production (Focal Press, 1999), Robert McLeish gives four categories of interview that help you decide what you are looking for from the interview, and what questions to ask:

Informational interview

You are interviewing for facts you will use in a story in which the interviewee plays a key role. Recording the interview is just a convenient way of taking notes, or you might use fragments of the interview in the story.

Interpretive interview

You are presenting the interviewee with situations or scenarios and are asking him to provide his perspective and analysis. You as the interviewer need to present the facts and then ask the interviewee to provide an analysis of those events.

Emotional interview

You and the interviewee walk through an emotional experience as she relates how it made her feel at the time it occurred. In these interviews, you need to remain in the moment with the interviewee and relive the experience with her. Then, work with the interviewee to express her state of mind for your listeners. Ira Glass of the weekly radio show "This American Life" is the master of the emotional interview.

Documentary interview

You walk the interviewee through past events in a linear timeline. Your job is to draw out as much detail and perspective as you can. Your job also is to pick a starting point in the story, and then take notes as you go that help you ask follow-up questions to gather more detail where the interviewee was vague. Errol Morris's documentary interviews are legendary. He is famous for his grueling, 10-hour interview technique. Check out his work in the movies The Fog of War and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.

With this in mind, you need to develop a set of questions that draw the required information or perspective from the interviewee. In all cases, your job as the interviewer is to represent your listeners. This means asking the questions you know your listeners would want asked, even if you already know the answers.

For podcasting interviews, you will likely be using a combination of information and interpretive questions in your interview: asking your subject the when, where, and how of an event, then asking him for his opinion or reaction to a related event.

What questions you ask will vary widely among interviews, but the fundamentals of compelling audio remain. You want to bring your listeners into your interviewee's world by extracting as much detail about the story and about his reaction to it as you can. Avoiding the brushoff and asking questions that probe for deeper detail is a hallmark of a great interviewing technique. Try to find questions that shed new light on the topic and help your listeners understand things in a new way.

How you order your questions can make or break an interview. If you are willing to spend a lot of time in editing, you can rearrange the question and answer blocks to create the story you are trying to tell. But it's easier just to spend some time figuring out the most important parts of the story and placing them near the end, as a crescendo. In addition, you might want to take an exciting question from the middle of the interview and put it at the beginning to get your listeners involved in the story right away. This early punch, followed by some background questions leading to the hard-hitting questions at the end, makes for a very engaging interviewing style.

5.2.2. Location and Hardware Setup

If you're recording more than one person at a time, get them to gather around you, and follow the conversation with your microphone. In general, it's risky to let the interviewee hold the microphone [Hack #13]. Sometimes lavalier mics can be helpful, but they attract noise and eliminate your control. Try to interview away from hard surfaces such as walls. For example, don't record across a desk because you can get phase cancellation from the reflected sound.

If you want a quiet interview, try to get it while seated on a couch in a room that has curtains and a rug. Set everything up the way you like it before you start. Be sure to check for interfering noise, such as air conditioners, fluorescent lights, refrigerators, traffic, radios, noisy crumpling of candy wrappers in front of the microphone, etc. Get away from noise [Hack #15] or have it turned off. A musical background is very difficult to edit. Loud hums are annoying because they add nothing and don't make sense.

Often, a noisy environment is exactly what you want. And be sure also to get the noise by itself, without any talking over it.

I often like to move around during interviews. Get your interviewee up and walking around, and ask him to show you what happened in addition to talking about it. This can relax people and take their minds off the recording. Have the person describe where you are and what you're doing. Refer to objects and sights around you. But try to keep the mic close to the interviewee. All this will reinforce a sense of place, action, and immediacy for your listeners. Moving around also gives you a variety of acoustical environments as structuring options in your final piece: possibilities for movement in time and space.

For "voice of the people"type interviews (a.k.a. Vox Pop), go where people are waiting. If it seems appropriate, walk right up with your sentence about what you're doing and attach the first question to it. I've heard it suggested that the best recordings come from people wearing funny hats.

5.2.3. Preparing the Interviewee

Spend a few moments with the person before the recorder [Hack #69] starts rolling to let him know how the interview is going to play out. Let him know if you are going to edit the interview to clean up his voice, and let him know the kinds of things you will be editing out. If you are not going to be editing the interview, be sure to let him know that as well.

If you have some time before you get started, let him know the first question you're going to ask. This will allow him to prepare a response, but also will get him mentally prepared for the interview, and will avoid the freeze-up you get when you hit an interviewee with a tough question right out the box. Some interviewers go as far as to send all the questions to their interviewee in advance.

In addition, you should inform your interviewee about the mechanics of the interview: how long it will take, how many questions you will be asking, the type of information you are looking for, and how you will use it. Once the interview is complete, and the content is posted, you should complete the loop by contacting the interviewee to let him know the content is available.

5.2.4. Interviewing Technique

Remember eye contact. Don't let the mic be the focusotherwise, it occupies the space between you and the person you're talking to so that you have to stare through it. I usually begin by holding the mic casually, as though it's unimportant. Sometimes I'll rest it against my cheek to show it has no evil powers. I might start off with an innocuous question ("Geez, is this as bad as the smog ever gets out here?"), and then slowly move the mic, from below, into position at the side of the person's mouth, but not blocking eye contact. You'll find your own way of being natural with the mic, but it is important.

Don't be afraid to askthe same thing in different ways until you get an answer you're satisfied with. Remember that you can edit together the beginning and ending of two answers, but be sure to get the ingredients. If a noise interferes with a good bit of recording, try to get it again. You can blame it on the machine, but it might be better just to wrap the conversation back to the same place so that you don't get the quality of someone repeating himself.

For repeat answers or more enthusiasm, try: "What?!" or "You're kidding!" or "Really??" Remember to ask why, especially after a yes or no response. Don't forget the preface: "Tell me about…." Let people talk. Allow silence. Don't always jump in with questions. Often, some truth will follow a silence. Let people know they can repeat thingsthat you're not on the air. It's OK to screw up. And remember to offer something of yourself (don't just take). Think of your listeners' innocence; ask the obvious, along with the subtle.

Save the hard, abstract, or conceptual questions until later in the interview. Lay some groundwork before getting into these all-encompassing questions so that your listeners understand where the questions are coming from. Asking "What is the purpose of your life?" as the first question out of the gate is just going to get you a blank stare.

If you interrupt or overlap your voice with your interviewee's voice, you won't be able to edit yourself out. This will eliminate that sense of the interviewee communicating directly with your listeners; instead, your listeners will be eavesdroppers on your conversation. It commits you to a production decision. If you want to leave your production options open, don't laugh aloud, or stick in "uh-huh" or other vocal affirmations. You must let your subjects know you're with them, but use head nods and eye contact and develop a silent knee-slap and guffaw.

5.2.5. Microphone Technique

If you do want your presence in the interview, think about perspective. Do you want your voice to be very on-mic? If so, you should move the mic up to your mouth for your questions. Do you want to defer the primary focus to the interviewee, but have your questions legible? Then, pull the mic back half way toward you, or speak up loudly.

For close-mic interviewing, keep the mic about 6 inches from the speaker's mouth and a bit off to one side to avoid P-pops (plosives). Go closer if he speaks very quietly, or further away if he is loud.

Use mic distance as a volume controli.e., move in for whispering and out for loud laughter. Don't change the volume at the machine for this kind of quick change. You can use the built-in limiter or automatic gain control (AGC or ARL) in very changeable level situations. If your background is very noisy, and you want to tone down the noise level, mic your subject even closer (24 inches) and reset your record levels.

5.2.6. Equipment Issues

Become comfortable with your equipment. If you are comfortable, everyone else will be. Check, clean, and test all your equipment before you go out. Put in fresh batteries. Make test recordings. Be over-prepared. Be a Boy Scout. Have everything set up before you walk in. Sit in the car (or the subway station, or the bushes) to load and label your first tape, prepare your next tapes for fast changes, set your levels, etc.

Wind, handling, and cable noise are some of the most common recording problems. Use windscreens/pop filters [Hack #12] and try to get out of the wind. With the body of the microphone, as with so many things, learn to have a light touch. Don't let the mic cable bang around or rustle on your clothes. Check that all your cables have good, noise-free connections at both ends. Monitor with headphones to check for these problems.

For recording most sounds or voices, you want the meter peaking at a little above zero, never pegging at the limit. In general, shoot for a record level between 5 and 8 on the mic input knob. Recording levels are critical. You are trying to keep your levels as high as possible without distortionby recording at a nice, hot level, you rise above hiss and electronic noise. Setting levels is a balancing act between distortion at the top and noise at the bottom. Don't use the Pause button, as it uses up the batteries. Occasionally during recording, check to make sure the recorder is actually working.

Omnidirectional, dynamic mics [Hack #13] are the best choice for all-purpose interviewing and basic sound gathering. Unidirectionals are good for noise rejection from the sides and rear and for stereo in pairs, but they are sensitive to wind and handling. Powered mics (electrets and condensers) have good response and high output, but they are sensitive to wind, handling, humidity, and dead batteries.

Try recording with headphones. They are almost essential for stereo recording. And they're always helpful for catching wind noise, handling noise, cable rustle, RF interference, P-pops (plosives), hums you didn't notice, nervous scratching, and other hazards such as forgetting to turn on the tape recorder. If for some reason you must conserve batteries, unplug the headphones.

5.2.7. Recording Ambience

Get all the sundry sounds [Hack #64], such as phones ringing, dogs barking, and clocks tickingthey can be useful for editing. Leave the machine running for stuff that seems irrelevant: it might not be. Yes, leave the recorder running. If you turn it off, your interviewee will say the best thing you ever heard. Don't pack up your stuff until you are gone. Allow people the chance to say things in conclusion. Ask them who else you should talk to. You might want to record them saying their names and what they do. Record sounds from various distances and perspectives. Experiment. For example, a toilet flush sounds very different when it's recorded from five feet away than when it's recorded with the mic resting on the plumbing.

You can't record too much. Collect and catalog sound effects and ambiences. Save everything, including your notes. Don't erase. Take plenty of extras: spares of everything, depending on how long you'll be on location, including assorted microphones, cables, tape recorder batteries, microphone batteries, tapes, AC cords/adapters, extension cords, windscreens, headphones, lots of plug/jack adapters, patch cords, mic stands, shock mounts, Rowi clamps, goosenecks, duct tape, electrical tape, cleaning and de-magnetizing gear, pens, paper, and labels. Label everything. Make safety copies of precious stuff on your computer.

Remember that you can always use your recorder as a dictating machine, either for on-location narration or for note taking. Don't forget to look as well as listen. Note specifics about what you see and feel. Immediately after an interview, make some notes about what you remember… what mattered.

5.2.8. Be a Good Interviewee

To create a compelling interview, the interviewer must ask thought-provoking questions, and the interviewee must be right there with insightful answers. Here are some tips to help you give great interviews:

Know the format

Before you sign up for the interview, ask what the interview will be about and what the format is. Find out if the interview will be edited or live. If it will be live, you will want to know what the first question is so that you have time to prepare and so that you don't freeze up. A good interviewer will do this prep. But sometimes you will be the most experienced person in the room. If you are presented with an option about live versus edited, always pick edited. With edited interviews, you can try multiple ways of answering a question and you will have time to think about your answers. If you are concerned with how you will be edited, make your own backup recording.

Know the audience

What audience will you be talking to, and what do they want to get from the interview? Interesting people have complex lives, only a portion of which might be interesting to the listening audience. You need to take that into account when you figure out your key themes and write your notes for the show.

Key themes

Unless it's an oral history or a storytelling session, you will be there to, talk about something; a new podcast, a new book whatever. You should have two or three key themes in mind on that subject. As the interview progresses, expound on these themes. You don't have to be exclusionary of other background information. But tie the background information back into your themes.

Let's say you are talking about your new Frisbee podcast. You have three key themes in mind: the idea of the podcast, when the podcast is updated and where to find it, and how people can contribute to it. Early on in the interview, you might be asked about your background. Tell people about yourself, and then tie that back into how your experiences laid the groundwork for the podcast, which works on the idea theme. Then talk about how you felt you could contribute to the Frisbee community, and how they can now contribute through your podcast, which works the contributions theme.

Be prepared

Have your own notes about important places, dates, and things you want to remember. Quotes are great, but they can be overplayed if you use them too often. Write out your notes in spoken format so that you remember to read out web site names and other facts slowly and clearly.

Hone your plug

If you are trying to convince people to listen to your podcast, you need to plug it. The plug should compel people to listen, or get them involved. And it should inform them as to what to do next.


It's very important to be relaxed during an interview. Don't schedule anything right before or right after. Don't drink anything caffeinated or use any alcohol or drugs. These can affect your ability to focus, and can add a stressed or slurry quality to your voice.

Being confident in your ability to nail the interview will help you relax. If you haven't done interviews before, ask a friend to throw some questions at you. This will help you feel more relaxed in the format, and will help you to hone your responses.


A convincing method for making an argument is to present your point in the large, then provide a small illustrative anecdote, followed by an explanation of how this anecdote proves the larger point. Here is an example: "Westerns are the best type of movie. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was the best movie ever made. Movies like that make Westerns the best of all the genres."

During the interview, concentration matters most. Answering questions in a way that both informs and interests takes concentration. Professionals call this being in the moment, and it's important on both sides of the microphone. It's harder to get distracted with face-to-face interviews because the interviewer will be looking you in the eye most of the time.

With phone interviews, it's easier to be sidetracked by your computer, your kids, or your dog. Lock yourself in a quiet, comfortable spot with just you, your notes, and a pen or pencil to scribble notes during the interview. Turn off your cell phone.

You should consider having a library of cuts. Watch a movie actor appear on The Late Show with David Letterman to plug her movie. She will always have a clip from the movie that gets people excited about going to the theater to see it. You should do the same with your podcast, and bring along an iPod or CD with these select cuts, or point the interviewer to your site where you have a library of cuts to choose from. Each cut should have a transcript of what is in the cut. Give the interviewer a short list of the cuts that you think will fit the tone of the interview best.

5.2.9. See Also

  • "Pick the Right Microphone" [Hack #13]

  • "Assemble a Small Recording Rig" [Hack #69]

Jay Allison and Jack Herrington

    Podcasting Hacks
    Podcasting Hacks: Tips and Tools for Blogging Out Loud
    ISBN: 0596100663
    EAN: 2147483647
    Year: 2003
    Pages: 144

    Similar book on Amazon

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