Five things to think about for a five-minute interview

is presenter of BBC News series Five Minutes With, on TV and online

Matthew Stadlen interviews Stephen Fry

Interviewing well-known names against the clock brings with it certain pressures. Presenting Five Minutes With means I have just five minutes to get what I want out of my interviewee.

The interviews are also recorded ‘as live’, so there's the pressure of needing to get it right as the clock ticks down. Whatever right means!

I've interviewed more than 200 people for the series - from Richard Dawkins to Sir Richard Branson, Tinie Tempah to Tracey Emin, Serena Williams to Stephen Fry - and I've been reflecting on how I go about doing what I do. Here are five key things to think about when you've got five minutes with someone potentially fascinating:

1. Atmosphere is important. Central to my format is the hope that I, and therefore the viewer, will get a real sense of what the person is like.

If the guest feels comfortable and relaxed they're more likely to reveal interesting things about themselves. Chatting off camera beforehand is essential. It helps to build a relationship and the hope is that the interview itself will be a more focused continuation of this interaction.

I try to create an environment where I'm not talking to a household name but to a person. Fame can be impressive and even intimidating. Once you get behind it, though, what you find is often a regular person with familiar hopes and fears.

2. The tone of the interview has a big impact on the audience.

The Five Minutes With format doesn't lend itself to relentless cross-examination. If I hammered away at a guest they might shut down and reveal far less about themselves. So I try to keep the style of the interview conversational rather than adversarial and maintain a friendly chemistry between myself and the interviewee.

But just because this isn't HARDTalk doesn't mean I don't sometimes ask tough or penetrating questions. Where a difficult question needs to be asked I'll ask it.

3. When it comes to choosing questions, I tend to go for ones that I'm interested in and hope my interest will communicate itself to both the guest and the viewer. But I'll often ask colleagues or friends for suggestions so that I'm not thinking in a vacuum.

Research is vital. And don't just go to one source. Look online and off. Read biographies, interviews and articles about or by your guest, and watch videos in which they feature.

Knowing a lot about your interviewees before you start helps you to target the most intriguing areas of their lives, careers and characteristics. That said, I try to make my interviews fresh and leave space for surprising responses.

Barristers in court can sometimes come unstuck if they ask witnesses questions that they, the barrister, don't know the answers to. The opposite can be true in interviewing. We want to find out surprising things about the people we're talking to.

4. Memorising questions. I often try to commit 20 to 30 questions - sometimes more - to memory. I don't use notes during the interview itself because it would distract everyone involved - myself, the guest and the viewer - in what should be a conversation.

And I structure them so that if the interview goes to plan it will have a flow to it. Flying from one topic to another can be disruptive. The nerves I still feel before the clock starts are mostly attributable to my anxiety about whether I will remember my questions!

However, there are two important caveats here. The first is that it's important to go off script when an answer demands it. And sometimes you learn more from your failures than your successes. I kicked myself when I watched back my interview with Stephen Fry, for example. I'd asked him about being expelled from school and he revealed in his answer that he'd been sent to prison at one point. Somehow, I didn't follow up by asking him why!

The second caveat is that sometimes there's such a mix of topics you want to cover that a handbrake turn is almost unavoidable. Interviewing Serena Williams was testing because I moved from light to heavy and back to light again. After talking about the death of one of her sisters, I thought the best way of changing subject was to announce it to her and the audience. So I said: "Let's get light again.”

5. Finally, remember that the interview isn't about you; it's about the guest. Sounds obvious but an attention-seeking interviewer stands out - and not in a good way.

Your personality will inevitably come through if you're being natural, but don't distract the viewer from the interviewee. It's why they're watching.

And be interested. Everyone, whoever they are, has a story to tell. Some are better story-tellers than others and that's where we as interviewers come in. If we're not interested no-one else will be.


More Posts