Interviewing is one of the most important skills in a journalist’s toolkit. NBCU Academy sat down with Craig Melvin, TODAY Show news anchor and third hour co-host, to discuss interview tips on preparation, putting an interviewee at ease and how silence can draw out great answers. Watch the video above or read Melvin’s edited comments and interview tips below.
What makes a good interview?
The three main things I like to accomplish in an interview, regardless of whom I’m talking to:
- I want the audience to learn something new. I want them to have discovered something new about the subject, the person or the event. The interview should be revelatory on some level.
- I want some sort of emotion. Whoever is listening or watching should feel something – empathy, anger or sometimes concern.
- There should be a smile. There are exceptions to this rule, but at some point there should be a chuckle. The times in which we live are so heavy. There should be a moment in every interview where you can smile and just be normal.
When do you ask tough questions?
We call that a “potentially contentious interview.” It’s best to not start with broccoli. You start with the ice cream, and you build up to it. You create the crescendo. I like to do the hard questions toward the back end of the interview.
Especially if it’s a taped interview, I make them smile, I make them laugh, I connect with them in some way, on a micro or macro level, before I have to hit them with “So let’s talk about that indictment.”
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. It’s not what you ask, it’s how you ask it. And that goes a long way.
How do you use active listening as a journalist?
Active listening is a journalist’s best friend. When you ask a question, just look at them as they answer the question. You’re not interrupting, you’re not thinking about your next question.
Let me repeat that: You’re not thinking about your next question. You’re actually listening to the answer. And based on what they’re saying, after a while, you’re able to formulate a smart follow-up.
I think a lot of times people pretend that everything someone says makes sense. They’re afraid of asking a follow-up question because it might make them look dumb. I’ve been looking dumb for 20 years. Sometimes people will say something that doesn’t make any sense, so I’ll say in a polite way, “Explain that to me.” When you ask people to explain something a second time, they do a much better job of it.
What are some challenges you faced when doing interviews throughout your career?
Early in my career, I would try to cover as much ground as possible. And there would be lots of, shall we say, missed opportunities. I did not ask the smart follow-up that might elicit some sort of nugget or morsel that was newsworthy, because I tried to get through all five or six topics.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed the head of Instagram. That wasn’t my best moment. I tried to cover too much, instead of focusing on one or two things. But you need those moments. You’ve got to go back and watch, because it’s like watching a game tape.
Thanks for the interview tips. What’s your favorite part of your job?
I get to come in and do something fun with people that I genuinely enjoy every day. And if on Monday I screwed up an interview, on Tuesday it’s a whole new slate. I don’t have to wallow in the mistakes that long. The TODAY show is a dream come true.