Ten Things NOT to do in an Interview

I’ve been putting together news packages for about 3 years now.

Prior to learning the technical side to visuals and video, I’ve learned since working on a school newspaper in seventh grade how to interview people in a news/information seeking setting. In fact, the art of conversing, interviewing, and putting some one at ease has been something I’ve been facing head on for my entire life. Granted, I’ve learned from mistakes, watching others, and from my successes. I’ve narrowed down my experiences into a guide that explores the top 10 things not to do, say, or wear during a news interview.

1. Don’t wear overly casual outfits: So you’re working on a news package and one of your friends you’ve grown up with would have the perfect sound bite to add. It doesn’t matter if you’re interviewing the CEO of an influential company or your neighbor a few doors down. Put away the gym wear and hoodies, and put on something that reflects the fact you care. Even if you’re not planning on doing your stand up that day, or even coming close to being in front of the camera, at least put on a pair of nice jeans and shirt.

2. Don’t tell the interviewee what to say: The reason you should choose some one to interview is because you think they will add depth to the story and produce good quotes for you to use during the post production. By telling them what to say not only puts pressure on the interviewee, the “perfect” sound bite may just sound scripted and therefore unusable. If you have an idea of what you want them to say, don’t ask broad questions. Narrow down the questions to encourage the interviewee in the direction you were planning to go. If the interviewee feels confused or not sure what to say, suggestions are always helpful, but flat out asking them to memorize lines is too much like a movie, and not like a candid package.
For example, I know if they say “Alice is a great mentor, she’s helped me in countless ways” it will complete my package. Instead I use the statement I want and turn it into a question. “What kind of mentor is Alice, and how has she helped you?” Their response could be something like “Alice is not only a fantastic mentor, but she’s helped me in school, my personal life, and given me enthusiasm to reach my goals.” Not only is the sound bite what you needed, it sounds a lot better than the original “feed line” would have been.

3. Don’t forget to ask the interviewee if they would like the questions in advance: On some stories this is impossible, especially in the case of field interviews. This one is tricky because there are two trains of thought. The first is that the interviewee will give better sound bites if he/she hasn’t had a lot of time to stress and mull over the response. The second is that they interview will go quicker and the sound bites will be better because the interviewee will feel more confident and ready with the questions presented in advance. Also they will know you are prepared. The solution? If you don’t feel like you want to give the questions in advance, then at least give them a specific idea about the angle you will be taking in your story. My reasoning for putting this “no no” in is because I messed up last week and asked the assistant of the interviewee if he thought she would like the questions in advance. His response wasn’t specific one way or the other. I didn’t send her the questions ahead of time, which she vaguely alluded to while I was setting up for the interview. In embarrassment, I knew I should have sent them in, no matter how well spoken of an interviewee she was, or how wishy washy the assistant seemed towards the offer.

4. If you are going out with a crew, or you are filling in for some one’s interview, don’t put their ideas or questions down: You don’t know what piece they need for their package. Putting them down will back fire and make you look bad. If some one does ask you to fill in, make sure they are specific in their requests. Questions, what kind of angle they’re looking for, or if they need any b-roll within the interview. Also, make sure they give the questions to you with enough time prior to the interview so you have time to get comfortable for what is needed. If you have a group you’re working with that is present, definitely don’t put them down. If they messed up, or were confused in what kind of shot you wanted, calmly correct it, or confront them later. The interviewee will respect your team, see your leadership/teamwork abilities, and be more at ease during the responses if you don’t lash out.

5. Don’t stop the interviewee if they are overlapping one of your other questions: Make a mental reminder that they answered one of the other questions. Stopping them half way to say “I’m asking that question later” can prove less efficient. Also, the train of thought that they started when answering may be gone by the time question number eleven rolls around. If you want a response to be slightly more separated you can always politely ask them to summarize their answer, or just the first part of the answer.

6. Don’t forget vital pieces of equipment: It’s always safe to check and double check to make sure you have all of the equipment. I have one or two tragic stories about this that I won’t be sharing. Just don’t forget, it’s really not worth the embarrassment of yourself, or of the team you’re representing. If need be, make a check list until you can get in the habit of knowing you have everything. Remember, any time you are in a rush, the chances of forgetting things is heightened.

7. Don’t slouch during the interview: Stay poised while asking questions, you’re controlling the outlook, and if you slouch, you can’t expect anything less of the interviewee. However, DO be comfortable. Keep your posture, nod when needed and don’t look like you only got four hours of sleep the night before, even if you did. If they are sitting, feel free to sit so when they look at you, the camera is level with their head and their eyes aren’t looking towards the stars. However, stay alert. If you are on a crew and your job is done before the camera is rolling, you can always engage the interviewee in small talk instead of taking a dive on the nearest couch or looking like this is the most boring thing you’ve ever done.

8. Don’t freak out if something goes wrong: While a news style interview is like a job interview where you present questions, and try to know the person, it’s far more conversational. A lot of nonverbal cues should be traced through the interview process. If something major happens, like a battery almost dying, or the lighting proving terrible, fix the issues calmly; don’t let your panic attack spill out to the interviewee. If your battery is about to die, reference back to number six. If the lighting in your “perfect location” ends up being anything but perfect, be on your feet and ready to set up elsewhere.

9. Don’t get their too early, but definitely don’t get there too late: Every one has schedules, some more tight than others. The interviewee is doing you a huge favor by going on camera; so don’t take that for granted. This past week I overestimated the time it was going to take me to get somewhere, so instead of getting there 30 minutes, like I was hoping, I got there 45 minutes early. (15 minutes will usually do, I just wanted to make sure I had a handle on the new equipment I was using.) I ended up setting up way before the interviewee was even there, and because I wanted to give the background authenticity, I used her office. It was apparent I was prepared, but I didn’t want her to feel rushed just because I was finished setting up by the time she got there.

10. Don’t think you can memorize the needed questions, or don’t have to write any in the first place: If you’re putting together a 2 minute news package, depending on how many interviewees you have will depend on how many questions. If one of the interviewees is the prime subject, prepare at least 15 questions, and at least 10 for the other not as prominent subjects.  Prepare more if the questions seem similar enough that there is a possibility for overlap in a response. If you don’t write questions, the interview will probably not go as smoothly as it could. Also, you’ll spend a lot of time focusing on thinking of what the next question will be and not picking up on good potential sound bites. If you have asked all of the questions, or are in the middle of a response and think of a great question, feel free to ask it! If you send in questions ahead of time, mention that more may be added for the actual interview, and that those are just an idea of what to prepare for.


MelHeadshotMelissa Prax is currently a student at The Ohio State University majoring in human nutrition and globalization studies. As an editor and promotional video producer for the honors and scholars program at OSU, she is continuing to do what she loves in and out of the class room. Her experience and first taste in writing and editing goes back to her high school Interactive Multimedia class. Now she is also a member of the crew and talent for Buckeye TV, Ohio State's student television station.