Don’t tell your interviewee what you’re going to ask them

December 5, 2012 — Leave a comment

Well, tell them roughly what you’re going to ask them, but don’t give them precise questions.

I post this because I’ve noticed that for almost every interview I’ve ever given to journalism or media students, they’ve tried to tell me beforehand the exact questions they’ll want to ask me in the interview. While I may only be giving interviews about non-political subjects such as Lincoln Shorts, BBC Introducing or student radio, the principles about briefing a guest remain.

My frustration lies with the fact that I feel like students are routinely taught to hand over interview questions in advance. I work full-time in radio and behind the microphone I’m careful not to hand over specific questions, so when I’m in front of the mic there’s a certain annoyance when question-handing-over occurs.

Imagine if Michael Howard had been handed the precise questions for this interview before he agreed to go on air…

The beauty of questions not being prescribed is that things like this can happen. 

Repeatedly (when I’ve been the interviewee, booked by student journalists) I’ve experienced an interview setup that’s something like this (because it’s been taught that way):

1) Email contributor, ask if they’ll be interviewed

2) If they say yes, decide what you will ask them and email them the questions

3) Go and interview them

Points one and three are marvellous, number two is not.

Yes, it’s a difficult line to tread. The person you’re interviewing needs to know what the interview’s about. They need to know the sort of thing they will be asked. They need to know if they will have to debate the subject with someone else. They need to understand where the conversation could go and what topics could be discussed. You need to make sure they’re clear on the nature of the interview and the interviewer (for example you shouldn’t tell them it’ll be a fluffy interview where they can promote their goat-hairdressing business if in fact you’re planning to pit them against Jeremy Paxman who’s set to make the case for how goat-hairdressing businesses are tearing the UK apart).

But – it’s remarkably rare you would ever give your interviewee a precise list of questions. It doesn’t (for the most part) happen in the professional broadcasting world, so if you’re ever taught that’s what you should do, well, it’s wrong.

It needs a bit of common sense; most of the above can usually be dealt with very easily. For example, if you interview a local councillor for a community radio station about a sponsored charity walk they’re doing, you probably just need to say “can I interview you about your walk?”. If you’re trying to set up the head of a local NHS trust to debate abortion ethics with someone else you’re going to have to give them a lot more detail. But for neither of those examples should precise questions be handed out.

Biased as I may be, I think the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines have much wisdom scattered throughout them. On this topic, I believe this section sums things up perfectly regarding potential guests:

The more significant their contribution, the more detail we should provide. We should normally expect to explain the following:

  • The kind of contribution they are expected to make. We should tell them in advance about the range of views being represented in the specific content to which they are contributing and, wherever possible, the names of other likely contributors
  • We can only give a broad outline of question areas because the direction the interview takes will be dependent on what is said

You can read more about that here – and in fact the entire guidelines are online here.

Allowing an interview the possibility of going anywhere is all part of a democratic society with a strong, independent broadcast and print media. If that’s not enough for you, there’s one final reason why you shouldn’t give precise questions to your guest if you work in radio or video:

Your interviewee will often sound BORING.

If they’re used to being interviewed, like the head of a prominent charity or a local MP might be, it won’t be a problem. But most people aren’t used to being interviewed, and when given a set of specific questions will prepare a set of specific answers, and churn them out on tape or on camera like robots. Boring robots. Way more boring than the ones in ‘I, Robot’ feat. Will Smith. And if you’re broadcasting you don’t want to be boring.

So keep the specific questions to yourself.

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