If you live in Kingston, and have a TV, you probably recognize Julie Brown. She had been an anchor on CKWS for 10 years, providing Kingstonians with thoughtful and professional news content and commentary. I met Julie Brown several years ago when she interviewed me for her KEDCO on the street program. I was very impressed with her interview skills, so I thought I’d turn the tables on her, and pick her brain for tips on conducting interviews. Without further ado.
How did you end up in Kingston?
I was working in Peterborough, and I applied for a reporter job at CKWS, and got it! I came to town not knowing a single other soul. I had visited before, and was familiar with the city, but as far as a social outlet, or someone I could lean on, I didn’t have anybody.
How did you meet people and expand your social network?
I started to volunteer! I started out working a Tuesday through Saturday evening shift. I soon moved to the 11:00pm anchor position, so I was working 2:45pm – 11:45pm Monday to Friday, which involved co-anchoring the 6:00 news. Working nights limited what I could do socially. I couldn’t really join a sports team, or a club, because a lot of these activities happened at 7 in the evening when I was at work. I realized I had my days free, and I decided to get involved with the United Way campaign. The first meeting I attended was a Success by Six event, which really resonated with me. After the meeting, I met with the president of the United Way, Bhavana Varma, and asked to get more involved. She said great, we’re starting a committee and we’d love it for you to join. Through volunteering, I was able to meet like-minded people. It was very fulfilling for me, and was very important that someone in my field make inroads and give back to the community. Volunteering also made me want to stay in Kingston. My original plan was to be here for 18 months and it’s now been 10 years!
Sam: Let’s say I want to conduct a great interview. What should I do to get ready?
Julie: The first thing I do is research my subject. One of the keys to a great interview is to know your stuff. Research their background, and find out everything you can about them. Sometimes, it is those small nuggets of information you find that can really get someone to open up. You want to know what the person, or the organization is about, so you can frame your questions accordingly and get a general understanding that you can build upon.
Do map out your interviews in advance or do you go with the flow?
When I go into an interview I like to have my questions ready. When I develop my list of questions, there is a flow to them, with the questions building on each other. You may reach a point, however, where you might want to jump somewhere else. It’s important to listen to what your interview subject is saying. If you’re interviewing someone and they say something interesting, and you want a little more clarification, or want to change your focus to that, then do it! They usually won’t know your questions ahead of time, so it’s up to you maintain a structure in your head, but you may want to delve into different ideas that are brought up. Once again, listen to what they’re saying! It’s a skill, because sometimes you can be so focused on getting to those 10 questions that you have figured out ahead of time, but for the sake of the audience you want to have a nice, relaxed, conversational flow. You don’t want it to seem like an interrogation. Listen to their answers, and adjust your questions accordingly.
The best part about interviews is when you come across that golden quote, that perfect moment that you can structure the entire interview around. Come to the interview with a game plan, and shift focus depending on what your subject says.
What do you do if an interview goes off the rails?
I can give you an example from personal experience. I interviewed a politician one time, and I had very specific questions I wanted to ask. However, they came with their own agenda. Every question I asked, they moved the discussion to what they wanted to talk about. So what I did, was ask the question again! You may have to ask the same question several times before they give you something, but don’t be afraid to ask the question until you get the answer you’re looking for! The first time they answer, it may be a long, drawn out response that avoids the issue, but if you ask again they’ll usually give a more concise answer, which is what you want.
Keep in mind, sometimes people just aren’t on, they’re having a bad day or aren’t in the mood to talk. Pretty much the worst interviews ever are the ones where the subject gives one or two word answers. Yes. No. Yes. Maybe. A great example is the interview Jian Ghomeshi did with Billy Bob Thornton. You can see the interview get off to a bad start, and it was a real struggle to turn it around. Ghomeshi still had that time to fill, and it was a real challenge.
My approach is to start asking personal questions. “What do you do for fun?” “What’s a typical Friday night in your world?” I try and loosen them up, break the tension, and get back on track. You’ve obviously touched a nerve, so you need to back off, get them talking again, and guide the interview back to where you want it to go. You may have to go back and forth a couple of times. You have to try and find something. This is another reason that research is important. Some people are known for this type of thing. Billy Bob has a history of these types of interviews, and is even known to walk out of interviews.
Do you have any suggestions on how I can improve my interviews?
It can help to take a step back, and think about what you want to get out of the interview and what your audience would appreciate learning. I’m sure you’ve read an article where at the end you said, “Wow, I learned a lot!” or “I wonder why they didn’t ask that question, or delve into this”. You want to make sure the questions you ask are relevant to the people who are reading your piece.
After every interview, I watch it, and take a critical look. I look at my body language, their body language, how I phrase the questions, how they respond, etc. I conduct a post-mortem of sorts, seeing how I did, and what I could do better.
Any more interview tips?
How you conduct the interview depends on the medium. In broadcast, for example, you really need to connect with your audience. Even though you’re having a conversation with somebody, you need to look into the camera, and make the audience feel like they’re part of the conversation as well. If you don’t, the audience will feel excluded. Even though they’re not actually there with you, you need to bring them into the studio, and get them watching and paying attention. In radio, there is no visual connection to the audience, so you have to come up with other ways to make your listeners stop and hear what you and your subject are saying.
With written interviews, you can use some additional techniques. You have the luxury of waiting out silence. People are afraid of silence, and will tend to fill it if you are patient. You can’t have a “silence-off” on television or radio! People can hear the tension over the airwaves, so you need to use other methods to keep the interview going. Research is critical. What you really want to get are answers, that aren’t long winded. You only have a certain amount of space to write your article, and you want to maximize your impact. Sometimes it helps to go at a topic from a different direction, or perhaps rephrase the question.
Thank you for your time, Julie!