Better Interviewing – III. The Introduction

 The Introduction

Introducing a guest is a golden opportunity to keep your audience invested.

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We make snap judgments all the time about people within the first moments of meeting them. These first impressions stick and are difficult to change even after we’ve learned contradictory facts. What happens in the first moments of meeting someone matters. Good first impressions are made by appealing to the hearer.

But suppose you don’t take into account any context. Instead, you deliver a boilerplate spiel about yourself: name, birthplace, school, awards won, previous employer, current job title and current employer. Watch the eyes glaze over. Yet, that’s the model for many guest introductions on podcast interview shows.

Reciting a short list of biographical highlights seems like a perfectly legitimate way to introduce a guest. And if it were human nature to first gather facts and then form opinions, you’d have the audience in the palm of your hand upon reading their entire curriculum vitae. But we’re not built that way. When was the last time you read a EULA for fun?

Humans are naturally drawn to know how other humans deal with the challenges in their lives. Storytelling (which unfortunately has become a marketing buzzword) is synonymous with better interviewing and is foundational to building an audience. The opening of the show is the first critical storytelling opportunity. The guest introduction, a moment later, is the second.

Does the story in a guest introduction have to soar to the heavens and dive to the depths of the mortal coil? Does it have to win a Pulitzer? No, not at all. The plot doesn’t even need to be complete. That loose end can be tied up in the body of the interview. Stories work better than mere information.

So, the guest intro needs to play into the human trait of snap judgments. It should create a want in the audience to stay and find out more about the person you’re going to interview.

Enter A World

What is a good guest introduction? Let’s start by considering what it should do. In the following example we’re concerned with the effect of the introduction, not with the construction or format. Here’s the first sentence from J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Salinger could have started the novel with the character’s name, age, birthplace, childhood facts (David Copperfield crap) but instead he parachutes us into the middle of the character’s drama. Holden Caulfield doesn’t even tell us his name — what he says is more compelling. He brings us into his world.

That’s what a good guest introduction should do, bring the audience into another world, the world of your interview, which can be as immersive as any novel, record, or film. Stripped to its core, an interview is a performance. And to reiterate from the first article in this series, it’s a two-person nonfiction play of impromptu dialogue directed by the interviewer.

A good guest intro gets the play going by hitting the ground running.

Formatting

The best introductions are not self-contained events but are seamless. What does that mean? It means the guest intro flows right into your first question. Seams are moments when the dramatic action ends and a new one begins. Later in your interview seams aren’t such a big deal. But in the beginning, when the audience is deciding whether to commit, a seam gives the listener a familiar cue — like a commercial break — to disengage. It’s a perfect moment to click away to something else.

Letting guests introduce themselves can also disrupt a sense of progression. You might get lucky as they spin a compelling 8-sentence story about themselves which leads right into your first question. Most likely you’ll get name, job title and employer; or the interviewee will grab the spotlight, orating on and on from the resume in their head. That’s when you lose control of the show as half the audience bails out.

Let’s look at an example of a self-contained guest intro written from a bio and ending with a seam.

My guest is Michael Chavez. He was born in Redding, California in 1981. He started out his career as a firefighter but switched to wine. He went to Fresno State University where he got a degree in enology and then went graduate school at UC Davis to get an advanced degree in plant genetics. Today he works for Constellation Brands where he’s in charge of research as well as the wine lab. Welcome, Michael Chavez.

Now, let’s re-do the intro with a little story tension.

On a hot July day in 1998 Michael Chavez was supposed to be on a bus headed for Oregon to jump out of an airplane and fight a forest fire. But he broke his collarbone in a car accident that morning. With no plan B he headed to Napa to help out, one handed, at a winery where his brother worked. Michael did grunt work but ended up having one of those summer love affairs… only, with Cabernet Sauvignon. It hasn’t ended. And he’s here to talk about it. So Michael, did you ever smoke jump again?

The second intro contains fewer facts but tells a story that weaves into the first question. It’s only one of many possible scenarios. Perhaps Michael and his genetics team almost lost experimental plants but saved a groundbreaking new variety; it was a race against the clock to find a new source of water for irrigation; or a rivalry, not always friendly, emerged with his brother.

Again, the guest intro does not need to rise to the level of great literature to do its job. It merely requires story tension in about 5 to 10 crafted sentences which give us a reason to care about the guest.

There are other guest intro formats. But if you never try anything else you’ll be fine. Still, intros can contain sound from other sources; misdirect in order to surprise; play with language, music, news of the day, or employ many combinations of elements to tell a story. As the theater director Elia Kazan once said, “Whatever works, works.” For the most part, though, simple storytelling is powerful enough.

catcher-in-the-rye

Once writing intros like this you’ll begin to see the pattern everywhere: movie trailers, TV promos, commercials, book jackets, magazine covers, headlines, etc. If you’ve never written this kind of thing before, the first pancakes might come out a bit messy. What helps is to find your interviewee’s stories and you do that by asking them beforehand.

Getting the Information

Talking with a guest in advance is professional level pre-production. It significantly increases the chances of creating story experiences for the audience.

In some cases you might be limited to the Internet and email. Celebrities are often impossible to schedule for a call. And for hard news interviews, sometimes it’s actually more strategic to interview cold.

The purpose of talking with a guest in advance is to gather research to create a compelling guest introduction as well as map the stories you want to bring out during the interview.

Here are some tips for information gathering.

  • Keep it relaxed. If you use the term pre-interview, be sure to explain to the guest it’s just a casual conversation. Some people hear formality in that word and get anxious. But pre-interview can also be avoided. Just ask, “can we chat before the interview?”
  • It’s not a rehearsal. Don’t attempt to do the interview you envision during the chat. This is the time to get ideas about what to ask in the interview.
  • Stay out of the weeds. When you discover a story don’t spiral into minutiae. Rather, move on when you feel you have enough to explore it for real during the interview.
  • Look for conflict. Stories are synonymous with it. However, stay away from that word. It’s bit of a downer to say something like, “I want to find out about the conflict in your life.”
  • A sense of place is powerful. A good start is where someone was born and grew up (though in the interview a chronological approach is only one of many). It’s fascinating to find out how childhood experiences sync with the present.
  • Connect the dots you know about. From their bio or resume explore what happened in between one point to another.
  • Go off topic. Maybe you’re interviewing a car designer about car design, but it becomes three dimensional when you ask things like what kind of music they like or if they were stuck on an elevator who would they want it to be with and who not with, etc.
  • Paint pictures. You want your guest to talk about their experience as if you were having a drink with them. What were the blow-by-blow events leading up to it? What was the weather like that day? How did they feel? Who said what? You don’t necessarily want all of the details. But if your guest gets it that you want them to go there, and they’re willing, that’s perfect.
  • Not everyone can tell stories. One of the reasons Ira Glass says This American Life is successful is that interviewees who can’t tell stories don’t get on the air. For a podcast interview, rejecting someone after the pre-interview might not be practical. You can only do your best with your interviewee.
  • Bring out the grenades if necessary. “What are your biggest disappointments in life?” “What are your greatest triumphs?” “What keeps you up at night?” Explore from there.
  • If a guest wants to know what questions you’ll ask during the interview it’s okay to give them a few. But revealing the questions in advance generally eliminates fresh answers. You don’t want guests to prepare with lifeless or sugarcoated responses.

Organizing the show from the pre-interview is important, but devising the guest introduction is almost as critical. The intro is arguably the most important thing you’ll say. To make it sharp takes planning.

Preparation is the secret sauce in a great interview.