Legendary journalist Sir David Frost may be best known for his interviews with Richard Nixon, but he is also the only person to have interviewed eight British Prime Ministers and seven US Presidents in a television career that spans six decades. He shares the secrets of his success with Rebecca Greig…
The first thing is to be genuinely interested in the proposed interview subject and then you can do a really good job on the interview. People sense very quickly when you’re bored with them or what they’re saying, and the result is a non-event.
You have to strike up a relationship with the person you’re going to interview. That relationship may not be mutual admiration but there needs to be mutual respect so there is interest flowing between the two people. That leads to a situation, hopefully, where you are leading the interviewee into talking about things that they haven’t talked about before – not necessarily spectacular four-letter-word confrontations, but you’ve left them feeling relaxed, with a sense of trust so that they talk about new things or things they have talked about before, but talk about them better, and longer and stronger.
The best way to gain someone’s trust is eyeball to eyeball. Body language is key. People often say to me that they notice I move to the front of my chair – you’ve got to use your body language to say, “No, but why did you make that decision?” so it’s more difficult for the interviewee to avoid a question.
It’s not about asking difficult questions – it’s a case of asking fruitful questions. They may be difficult or they may be fresh and lead the person to a new subject. When Labour Party leader John Smith was on BBC’s Breakfast with Frost, he said to me after the interview, “You have a way of asking beguiling questions with potentially lethal consequences”. I told him, “I would be happy to have that on my tombstone”.
I remember interviewing Neil Kinnock before the 1987 general election when Labour was non-nuclear. I asked him: What would you do if you were faced with an enemy that was using short-range tactical nuclear weapons?” This is a good example of an interesting, non-combative question that Neil Kinnock wanted to answer. He told me, “We [the UK] wouldn’t give way”, which led the press to suggest that this would lead to “Dad’s army in the Welsh hills” and the furore went on for days.
This leads to my next point: keep ’em interested. If your interviewee is engaged they are more likely to give you extra time and prolong your conversation. When they are prepared to interfere with their own schedule, that’s an accolade – because they are obviously enjoying the interview.
If you’re interviewing someone you know it’s important to remind them that it’s a professional gig. Tell them: “I’ll be asking devil’s advocate questions. We’ll be on the record the whole way through”.
Even when you want to nail something, you want the interviewee to be at their very best: you don’t want to win a non-contest. During the Nixon interviews, before each of the 12 interview sessions, we did say what the next subject was going to be, without revealing the questions. We wanted him to be at his best: to know the subject so he knew what preparations to make.
The key thing is to get the first job and then you start to have your own CV. In the meantime, doing a bit of stuff at college or university, such as editing or writing for the student paper or volunteering for local radio, gives you preliminary experience so people don’t think, “Oh, he’s just a wanker who wants to get into television”.
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