Listening for gold 🥇
How to pre-interview, part 1
Welcome to The Audio Storyteller: tips and ideas for audio producers. Subscribe to get the full list of jobs and training straight to your inbox.
So many things in audio strike me as a tight-rope act. Are we giving the listener enough information, without telling them what to think or feel? Can you hit all your interview questions while also being in the moment with the guest?
The balancing act is definitely true when it comes to the dark art of pre-interviewing. How do you get enough detail without having the guest go through their story in full? Are you prepared enough while also making sure your reactions will be genuine? It’s a lot.
So today we’re hearing from two leading producers — one from a public radio background, and other from TV — on their approaches to pre-interviewing, from the questions they ask, to how they turn guests down.
Elaine Appleton Grant is an audio storyteller, public speaker and trainer. She worked for Boston’s WBUR, NH Public Radio and Colorado Public Radio, where she led the flagship show Colorado Matters. She’s the CEO and co-founder of Podcast Allies, which provides production services, consulting and training for mission-driven organizations. Elaine also hosts a fantastic new podcast that should definitely be in all producers’ feeds: Sound Judgment, which looks at what goes into great hosting.
What are you listening for during a pre-interview?
I use pre-interviews most often to audition, to see if that guest is going to be the right guest. There are times of course when you already know you totally want that person. If I could get Jane Goodall, I’m not going to pre-interview her. Dumb example, but true! I didn’t pre-interview Lemonada’s Stephanie Wittals Wachs [for the first episode of Sound Judgment].
So the first thing I'm looking for is: do they really know the subject that I want to talk about? And how intimately do they know it? Then what I want to know is: are you going to say anything surprising, or are you just going to say what everyone else has said?
And are you a good storyteller? Do you automatically say, “oh yeah I remember a time when…” It’s simple stuff but there are so many people who don’t ever do that; they’re not capable of it.
And then of course the liveliness and colour and emotion of their voice, and are they willing to show you their emotion? Are they willing to go there with you? How candid are they willing to be?
With a branded podcast, you're also obviously vetting their background, to make sure that… I’m not pre-interviewing a Trump supporter who doesn’t believe in climate change – for my liberal show.
And I'm not even sure it's just branded because I'm now producing an independent podcast. But I'm still going to want to be vetting people so that I'm not unwittingly doing something that is not in line with my values as a journalist, as a human being running a company.
If you pick up during the pre-interview that a potential guest is not speaking in scene, is not doing the ‘show don’t tell’ thing, do you immediately decide not to take them forward? Or is there an element of gambling, and planning to coax out those visual anecdotes in the main interview? How do we know when to take the gamble?
There are a lot of variables. One of them is what timeline you’re on. Do you need somebody in a day or two? Then I’m going to take more of a gamble. Like in daily news you don’t have as much of a choice.
And so when should you coax somebody? It's a sliding scale. It’s not a government form, you can’t say ‘never should’. And sometimes you can talk to them and say, “hey, for this show I need someone who is willing to do X. Is that you?” And just be very direct about it.
But if you're not quite sure the depth of their knowledge, or you think they're going to be boring, you've got to always keep in mind how many people turn off the podcast after 30 seconds.
Would your approach differ if you're pre-interviewing for a narrative show versus a conversation podcast?
Well, it's interesting, because for example Degrees [the show that Podcast Allies produces for the Environmental Defense Fund], was a conversation podcast and it morphed into a narrative show. So I would say, no not in this case. Because it's still a narrated interview. So it's really reliant on one person. If I were doing a narrative show or a documentary with a lot of voices, I don't think you need to be as stringent because all you need is a couple of good bites, and the rest of their tape doesn't have to hold the program.
My personal feeling is that straight interviews are much harder than people think they are to make interesting. There's so much that relies on the guest being a good guest.
How do you strike the balance between… I need the information and to know that they're good storyteller, but I don't want to hear the entire story so that it might feel rehearsed in the main interview?
It's really, really hard. And sometimes you can find where they've spoken before. You can watch videos or listen to them. For Colorado Matters, I did a ton of pre-interviewing. We would do between three to five interviews on the show a day — an hour-long show, five days a week. So that’s hundreds of pre-interviews. And there were times where you'd have a great pre-interview and you would talk too long and you'd be like, I want to like be their friend, they’re so interesting. And then you get to the taping, and it’s terrible, for exactly that reason: they've already told you their story.
And it's an art too, it's not a science. It doesn't just vary from person to person, but it also varies from show to show, and format to format.
Stephanie Hunt is an international journalist, producer, news editor and writer with 20 years’ experience in the media industry. She’s worked for Al Jazeera English, BBC World News, HARDtalk, Sky News London, Seven Network Australia. She also created and hosts And We’re Rolling, interviewing the world’s best female correspondents.
What purpose does a pre-interview serve?
The point of the pre interview is trying to work out the great bits that you want to focus on during the interview, developing a really good rapport with the individual, ironing out any nerves early on. And often, they just want to understand the process and understand how the interview will work.
I’m listening for any bits of gold, prodding the individual here and there if I think that there's even better elements to the story that they're perhaps skipping over.
What are some questions you might ask?
Just a lot of very broad questions initially, and then more direct questions, sort of honing in, and then just gently guiding the individual across a range of different topics. Once they get to a topic that I really want, then honing in again, being more specific and asking more questions. Can you tell me more about that? What was that like? Can you describe that more in detail? Trying to get a good understanding, and paint a great picture of the story.
What are the signs of a great guest or character?
I've worked mostly in TV, but also now podcasting. And it depends on what you want. A great storyteller is essentially what you want: someone with empathy, someone who can reflect in great detail, in an entertaining and engaging way.
And on the other hand, a guest you’d definitely not take forward?
Anyone who is aggressive, racist, anyone who gives one word answers in the pre interview. That's never a great sign. Anyone who is quite defensive and doesn't want to elaborate.
How do you get the right balance between having all the information you need but not asking the guest tell you their whole story there and then during the pre-interview?
A lot of it is relying on that gut instinct. I can normally tell pretty quickly how someone will go but then people can certainly surprise you and start off a bit shaky and then they come out of the blocks and get their stride and then start telling great stories. You don't want the individual to tell their story whilst you're recording in a way that makes it feel very rehearsed. And you don't want them sort of expecting a certain reaction, like you don't want them to expecting a big laugh if you've laughed in the pre interview, and then when you're recording if you don't laugh that can really throw them, throw them off. Obviously you want that very authentic interview.
I think it comes down to communication, just being very clear with the individual before you start the pre-interview, explaining what will happen, explaining the actual recording process as well. Setting up a really good rapport with the individuals so that they feel comfortable, they feel like they can trust you, they feel like they can make an error and it's not the end of the world - means they're more likely to go for it and tell a good story.
How long do your pre-interviews typically take?
It depends. So with breakfast TV, the segments would only go for sometimes two or three minutes. But on BBC Hard Talk, the interviews would go for half an hour or longer. With the quick breakfast TV segments, you want to know that the talent can really deliver the punchy, catchy stories. So the pre interviews would often only go for maybe 15 minutes. With BBC Hard Talk, the pre interviews could go on for days. As producers, we’d work out lines of questioning and what we'd want to prod and things you'd want to focus on. That could take a few hours. And it could go on for a number of days backwards and forwards.
What do you do if you decide you don’t want to take an interviewee forward – how (and when) do you phrase the ‘no’?
Obviously, you want to make that decision pretty early. You don't want to drag anyone along; that just makes them angry. And there's different ways of telling them. You always want to be very honest, but we often could say that the news agenda had changed and therefore we weren't focusing on this story, but we will be in touch in the future if the opportunity arises again. Just telling someone pretty quickly, being clear, being respectful, being honest, is always a good thing.
📌 Pre-interviewing resources…
Sally Herships’ The Art of the Pre-interview - Transom
The Wonders of the Pre-interview - Pacific Content