Learn how to interview by watching TV!

Our work involves asking a lot of questions. Learning to ask questions in an objective way isn’t always easy.  It’s a skill that takes a long time to master and I would argue that we never really master it at all, each project is a learning curve.  One of my guilty pleasures is shouting at the TV when I see an interviewer doing a really bad interview.  In fact, to justify my ever growing TV habit, I thought I would do a quick review of good and bad TV interviewers.


The TV greats

Like many people – I grew up watching Colombo and catching an episode now is nostalgic treat.  As an interviewer, he was superb –you always knew he would nail the culprit in the end, but watching him play with his victims, asking questions and acting slightly confused was a masterclass in how to ask the right question at the right time.  Who can forget his technique of ‘just one more question’, catching the killer off guard just when he or she thought they had got away with something.   I sometimes have ‘Colombo’ moments when doing focus groups in viewing studios. At the end of groups you usually pop to the back room to ask the client for any further questions – and then return to the group to ask ‘one more question’.  Sometimes that one more question is just a clarifying one, sometimes it’s one question too many, but often, it gives a little glimmer of something you hadn’t picked up during the main session.  We don’t always know what our participants are going to say – we can plan all we like, but taking time to observe and think in the moment means that unplanned questions can work a treat.

Louis Theroux is probably my all time favourite interviewer and again we can learn a lot from his technique of bluster – of pretending not to  know very much about anything – and therefore encouraging his subjects to ‘educate’ him without them feeling threatened or judged.  He doesn’t tell people they are right or wrong, he just explores – and this is such a skilful technique.  I remember working with a couple of clients who were insistent that the participants kept telling us the wrong answers, they didn’t understand the product and they wanted me to explain in great depth what it was.  At one point they wanted to come into the room and put people right!  It took a while to explain that if your potential market doesn’t understand a new product – then they aren’t wrong, your advertising is.  Part of the value of market research is understanding consumer perceptions, because this is what you are working with.  The ‘bluster’ technique of Louis is highly recommended.

The professional news interviewers

I probably watch more Sky and BBC news than is good for me, but in my defence, it’s a great way to explore interviewing in stressful situations.  I can’t imagine the frustration of having to interview some of our politicians who don’t seem to be able to answer questions at all – and as a result we see increasingly frustrated interviewing techniques from the news journalists.  These interviews are often a masterclass in asking leading questions – and if you’re not sure what a leading question looks like, just watch Kay Burley or Jeremy Paxman in action.

But there are also some fantastic interviewing techniques – of calm and precise questions.  These tend to be the planned documentaries, so questions are probably prepared in advance and shared with the interviewee – but even so, how these questions are asked and how they are elaborated on is where you see the real skill. Being able to respond to the answers you get and delve deeper in a subtle, calm and acceptable way, can trip even the most practised interviewee.  A great example is Emily Maitlis and THAT Royal interview.

The Daytime TV hosts

Occasionally I may be found in front of daytime TV – but all in the case of research, honest.   I admit these are my favourite interviewers to shout at the screen about.  On the plus side – one great attribute they have in common is the ability to make their guests feel relaxed – who wouldn’t enjoy sitting on the sofa with Phil and Holly and Alison Hammonds celebrity interviews have me laughing out loud.  Making your subjects relaxed is a fabulous skill to have.

But I get soooooo frustrated with Lorraine – I love her, she has a border terrier, what’s not to love! But as an interviewer she drives me mad.  Her questions are so long, she often even answers the questions herself before she gives her guest a chance to talk.  I find myself shouting ‘let them talk’ in the style of Kilroy.   In my view a good interviewer should talk less than their guest.  It’s something I think about when I’m listening to my interview recordings, if I hear too much of my own voice then I’ve probably not done a great interview.  One of the most difficult skills to learn is the art of silence.


So, if you fancy a guilt free TV fest – why not see how many more interviewing styles you can find. I know I’ve missed out many more examples – I’ll be found doing a bit more revision on the sofa if you need me.


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