You’ve made it this far and now you’re ready to prepare an outline. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) An outline is not a hard and fast script, but it is a road map. It’s what allows one the freedom to improvise during an interview, knowing that there’s a safe place to return to if the conversation wanders about or goes South. Speaking for myself, I can’t imagine doing an interview without an outline. It would be like trying to navigate in a strange city without a GPS. An interview outline will determine—more than anything else—even more than your audio editing—the final shape and content of your interview.
The three parts I have in my interview outline are the intro, the questions I want to ask, and the outro. Let’s take each part, one at a time.
In the intro, I want to intrigue the audience, introduce the interviewee with his or her project, and begin my first interaction with the guest. To begin, I also always first want to introduce myself to the radio audience. While it’s very important to be able to hang up your ego as an interviewer (more about this in future installments), I don’t believe in the aesthetic of a faceless, generic questioner. As the interviewer, you are in some sense a proxy for the curiosity of your audience. It’s important for them to know who you are, so I get that out of the way at the very beginning. For me, it’s just simply, “Hi, this is Jack Shalom,” at the top of the segment. Others do it more artfully, pulling a teaser quote first from the guest, for example, and then working in their identification, but I believe that if you don’t do it, or wait until the end, the audience will be left with an annoying unanswered question.
After introducing myself, I try to give a hook and teaser for the audience, setting up my introduction of the guest. Here’s an example of an introduction I did for an interview a while back:
“Hi. I’m Jack Shalom. Public education in the United States has historically been a segregated affair, and today that segregation has taken on a new and sometimes disguised form. Author Noliwe Rooks explicates that history and analyzes that new form in her new book Cutting School. Ms. Rooks is the director of American studies at Cornell University and for ten years was the associate director of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is also the author of White Money/Black Power and Hair Raising. I’m happy to be talking today with Noliwe Rooks. (WAIT)”
So you can see here, I’ve first introduced myself. Next, I’m setting the context by talking about public school segregation, and then I segue into introducing my guest and her book. I also include some of the guest’s most interesting or well-known credits.
Sometimes people jump into an interview and record the introductory material at a later (or earlier) time than the actual interview. I like to speak my introduction while the guest is with me, or on the phone, because I want the guest to know up front that I am not some berserk maniac. When they listen to the intro, they know I have done my research, and I am appreciative of their work. While I often ask my guests challenging questions, I don’t want them to think that the interview is going to be some kind of confrontational set-up. I want them to feel that I am on their side. Part of my job is to build trust.
You’ll see in the intro above that I have the word WAIT in caps in parentheses. That is because I am an idiot and I always need to remind myself that at that point in the intro, I need to…well…WAIT for my guest’s reply. It’s the guest’s first chance to speak, even if it’s just “Hi,” or “Thanks,” but you don’t want to step on that by talking over them. Sounds silly, but I’ve messed that up many times. Don’t worry if you have to wait a while while the guest figures out that it’s their turn to speak—you can edit out the pause later. Typically now, just before I start an interview, I’ll tell the guest that I’ll be doing a short intro and that they should answer after I say, “Hi, [guest’s name]” or “Welcome to the show.”
By the way, the other thing I ask my guests beforehand is the proper way to pronounce their name, and how they would like to be addressed e.g. Noliwe? Ms. Rooks? Dr. Rooks? Professor Rooks? I think every guest I’ve spoken to has always opted for first name, but I think it’s an important courtesy to extend beforehand. Again, it helps to build trust and to relax the guest.
The introduction should last no more than 45 seconds. The listeners are waiting for the guest to speak, not you. You don’t want to lose the audience before the interview even begins. I’ll often read out my intro out loud beforehand, watching a clock to time how long it goes. If it’s over 45 seconds, I will ruthlessly cut some of it from my outline. I never wing the intro. The intro and the outro are the one thing that I read verbatim from my outline. I want to make sure I get all the details correct.
The next part of my interview outline is the list of questions. The most interesting questions to me are those that the interviewer genuinely does not know the answer to, and has a curiosity to know more about. I think it’s very important that an interviewer does research beforehand. I know there are interviewers who feel that they should be as blank a slate as their audiences are with regard to the guest and his or her project, but I feel that is a mistake, and for me, at least, unsatisfying. I think it always shows when the research has not been done, and the guest will not be as open to someone who is not familiar with the guest’s issues. Moreover, without research or prior knowledge the interviewer becomes subject to the guest’s agenda, and the guest ends up controlling the direction of the conversation. With a brilliant, dynamic speaker that might be okay, but the more likely result is that the guest will be repeating the same canned words that s/he has given to many other interviewers before. I think if an interviewer is doing the job right, in the best possible case, both the interviewer and guest are surprised and happy about the spontaneous turns of conversation that result. That is very unlikely to happen without a fair amount of preparation.
I see the interviewer as bridging the gap between the audience and the guest. My interviewing stance is that I am an intelligent layman who enjoys knowing more about my guest and my guest’s work, and I want to get my audience to join me in my exploration. That requires that my questions set up an introductory context and then lead into more interesting areas. All of that requires familiarity and research.
More about questions next week. See you then.