Interviewing Tips from Russell Brand

This video, an interview with Russell Brand on MSNBC, is making its way around the Internet this week. Take a few minutes and watch, if you haven’t yet. It’s worth it.

Hilarious, yes, but for me, it’s mostly cringe-worthy. Russell Brand is known for enjoying “stirring the pot” with interviewers, but I’ve never seen him throw someone completely off like this. The thing is, the whole mortifying situation could have been avoided, if the hosts had just followed a few simple rules of interviewing.

If you’re creating content online, then chances are, at some point, you’ll want to interview someone, be it a written interview for your blog, an audio podcast, or a video. There’s a vast difference between a good interview and a bad one, and 99% of the time, it comes down to the quality and experience of the person asking the questions. Here are a few tips that these MSNBC hosts could have used when preparing to talk to Russell Brand. I hope they are helpful to you, too.

The interview is never, ever, EVER about you.
Every single question the hosts asked Brand started off with something like “In my experience”, or “The way I see it”, or “Well, I think”. This is one of the worst mistakes an interviewer can make. The interview is not about you. It’s about your guest. Your job is to get them to share their experience. It has nothing to do with your experience. People are watching or listening or reading first and foremost because they want to hear what the interview subject has to say. The interviewers in the Brand interview seemed to think that they were the most important part of the segment. Brand quickly puts them in their place by telling them why they are actually doing the interview (to promote his upcoming show, “The Messiah Complex”).

Read the book.
At the very beginning of the interview, the host admits to Russell and everyone else watching that she doesn’t know anything about him. I wish I could have seen Brand’s face when she said that. It’s one of the most disrespectful and rude things you can do to first, not know anything about the person you’re about to talk to, and second, to admit it to their face!

In this day and age, with Google right at our fingertips and digital editions of books available without even leaving the house, there is excuse…NO excuse for not doing your homework before an interview. With 10 minutes of searching online this host could have found umpteen videos to watch (including other interviews, so she could get a sense of his style and know what to expect). She could have gone to Amazon and spent 10 bucks and a couple of evenings to read the 368 pages of Brand’s book “My Booky Wook: a Memoir of Sex, Drugs and Stand-Up”.

I read somewhere that Jon Stewart reads every book of every author he has on The Daily Show. Some of the books he reads are 800 pages long or more, and they are often about heavy subjects like economics and international affairs. But he reads them cover to cover, because it’s his job to know everything about his subject before they come on the show. Taking the time to thoroughly research your interview subject will allow you to be completely conversational, and your subject (and your audience) will have a heck of a lot more respect for you as an interviewer, too.

Be prepared.
It was pretty clear in the Russell Brand interview that the interviewers were not at all prepared. They didn’t appear to have any questions ready to ask. They probably just figured, because Brand is a comedian, that they could just let him go and riff on whatever. But the truth is, even the interviews that seem improvised rarely are. They have a focus, and a direction, and it’s the interviewer’s job to ensure that the interview stays focused. This means not only doing your homework, but prepping the direction. You don’t HAVE to write down all of your questions, but you should make some notes as you do your research, and at least decide what you want to talk about. Also ask your subject if there’s anything they want to make sure gets covered. Personally, I do write out questions, but I don’t often use them verbatim. The questions are my guide, my roadmap to help me stay on track.

Don’t ever try to “wing it” in an interview. Prepare your notes in advance, and use them. It’s okay to have a piece of paper in front of you. Even George Stroumboulopoulous sometimes has notes written on little blue cards when he interviews people. Your interview subject will thank you for helping them to stay on track, the interview will be more clear and less rambly, and there will be way less editing in the end.

Ok, so I can’t leave that horrendous Russell Brand interview on its own without posting some interviews that are actually good.

This is one of my favourite Strombo interviews. He talks with Quentin Tarantino, who is known as a pretty shy guy (note how he avoids eye contact). George makes him feel immediately relaxed by staying in Quentin’s comfort zone – talking about his movies. Because Tarantino is so at ease, the rest of the interview is insightful, conversational, and a great promotion for a great movie (Django Unchained).

Here’s a Jon Stewart interview from way back in 1997, his pre-Daily Show years. Stewart talks to the late, great George Carlin and absolutely nails it. The interview is personal, intimate (it’s like we are peeking in on Stewart and Carlin having a private chat), and you can tell that Carlin is enjoying the conversation immensely. Stewart clearly knows a lot about Carlin, it shows in the types of questions he’s asking. Stewart is also genuinely curious. And Carlin even gives Stewart a wonderful compliment at the end.

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  • June 20, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Very interesting. Fun. Intriguing.
    What I agree with you on is the interviewers weren’t prepared for this tornado. I don’t know if your examples of Carlin and Tarantino are appropriate. Basically, Brand comes in and tears up the place. With Tarantino, it takes extra effort to get him to come out of his shell. Very different personalities to manage.
    When Robin Williams would visit with Johnny Carson anything could happen.
    Johnny was prepared and would roll with it. Johnny could match quip for quip.
    The Morning Joe folks remind me of NPR’s Terry Gross trying to interview Gene Simmons of KISS. 
    WOAH! I felt so sorry for Terry. Gene clearly was tired of decades of answering the same questions (“what do you use to paint your face with?”) and Terry wasn’t prepared for what Gene could do. He was brilliant but vulgar and he figured out how to push Terry’s buttons. Gene saw a wound and slowly but deliberately buried it in salt. Eventually he got Terry to lament that the interview had become “a drag.” Terry’s team had not prepared her and let her walk into an ambush.

    On the other side of the desk, there are interviewers like Howard Stern, and I think he’s brilliant. A celebrity isn’t going to come on his show and promote their book and then leave. Stern makes the guest expose some real human quality. And it’s hilarious to see the celebs who get uncomfortable and the celebs who can roll with it. Judd Nelson and Wesley Snipes are 2 guests who couldn’t handle it. Suzanne Somers was SURPRISINGLY able to go with the flow, have fun and banter with Stern.
    Stern may not even be prepared with details but he won’t hide the fact that he doesn’t know the details. He’ll admit, “I’m just a dumb guy with a raadio show.” But he remains in control of his radio show.
    Oprah lost control many years ago with Mr. T. He constantly repeated, “If you’d read my book you’d know the answer to that question.” Ok, he’s being a jerk but Oprah had no response, just these painfully blank expressions on her face and nothing coming out of her mouth.
    Fascinating topic.

    • June 20, 2013 at 1:34 pm

      OzData There are definitely some guests who are challenging, Robin Williams comes to mind for sure! 
      But regardless of how challenging and unpredictable one can be, there’s no excuse for being unprepared to interview anyone. And I really do think this team came off looking silly because they didn’t take the time to at least find out who they were dealing with.

      • June 20, 2013 at 2:22 pm

        suzemuse 100% in agreement.

  • June 20, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Yes, the interviewers were unprepared and rude but Russell Brand comments on the interviewer’s low cut top which is completely inappropriate and then tells them all that they shouldn’t focus on his own chest being on display. Undoubtedly they hadn’t checked him out prior to the interview so had no idea how to handle him. Personally, I think everyone lost in this cringefest.

    • June 20, 2013 at 1:36 pm

      suzanne285 Brand is a crass guy – he’s going to say crass things. He’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and I have seen him do much worse in interviews. Maybe that comment could have gone unsaid.
      At the end of the day though, the interviewers were the ones that looked silly.

      • June 20, 2013 at 2:09 pm

        @suzemuse I believe that comment should definitely have gone unsaid along with his comments about the water bottle. The interviewers were disrespectful, so he was he, so surely they’re all as bad as each other? He went in for the kill and it kind of worked – still a complete cringefest in my opinion!

  • June 20, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    George Stroumboulopoulos’ interview with Quentin Tarantino is one of the best I’ve seen of QT. George is a master interviewer, for certain. I can’t imagine telling a guest you had no idea who they were or what they’ve done.

  • June 21, 2013 at 10:55 am

    To be fair, I read both of Brands’ books over a one year period of potty breaks. The first one seemed to flow whereas the second one was like babysitting him while he got high 24/7. It was difficult, tedious and grating. That one took me 9 months to finish. So, what I really learned was sitting on the potty was the most appropriate place for ready Rusty’s books. 🙂

    • June 21, 2013 at 7:48 pm

      LOL Stacey!



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