What the host of Netflix's "Inside the World's Toughest Prisons" can teach us about virtual interviewing

By Jared Thompson | April 1, 2021

When it comes to interviewing through Blinder, use these conversation-enhancing techniques

  • Journalists have had to adapt to doing more interviews through video calls than in-person
  • Investigative journalist Paul Connolly offers guidance for virtual interviewing
  • Knowing when to implement techniques is as important as how to do so

Just as getting the most from in-person interviewing requires skill, conducting video interviews is an art form with its own techniques to master. 

For more than a year, journalists have been conducting most of their interviews online, adapting basic interviewing principles and adjusting to the use of digital technologies where “pounding the pavement” previously served as the newsgathering norm.

Paul Connolly, an investigative journalist from Ireland and host of the first season of Netflix’s “Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons,” offered his tips to online interviewing in a recent “The Journalism.co.uk Podcast.”

The most important part of the interview doesn’t make the cut

Many of the techniques that apply to in-person interviews can be implemented in online video interviews. Job number one is putting your guest at ease.

Connolly says the secret to the online interview “is in the preamble, the start of the call.” Ask your guest if they are comfortable, if they are ready, and if they need some water. Prepare them with some expectations and, if appropriate, an overview of the subject matter to be discussed. And, smile.

From a technical standpoint, request that they find a quiet place with good lighting to do the call. Be sure they are plugged in or have a full battery to complete the interview.

“Do everything you can to enable them to perform as well as they can,” Connolly says.

Recommended: Watch on Blinder

Sports Illustrated's Brian Burnsed on preparing interviewees for sensitive subject matter.

Do your research

Generally, you’ll have some basic background knowledge of the person you're interviewing. Most likely, an editor or producer will also funnel some questions and information to seek. Still, Connolly recommends a “forensic-like” investigation of your sources. 

"There is nothing that will knock you off balance more, especially if you're not very experienced, than when the first thing an interviewee says is 'actually, that’s not correct,’” Connolly says.

Indeed, if you know more about your interviewee than they expect, they will be more vulnerable. And, if they know more about you, they can turn the tables. Politicians do this often, Connolly warns.

“They'll know your weak points--don't think that doesn't happen. They might even bring up your past failings or past interviews.”

The best interviewers will incite an emotional response (though not always anger). 

"A great interview is finding out the pressure points and the little things you can do to invoke something different, something surprising and new with someone."

Maybe sit back and shut up a bit

The best interviewers listen. Their job is not to sound all-knowing, but to ask brief, timely questions to procure a useful response. 

“A brilliant, at-the-top-of-their-game interviewer is almost anonymous,” Connolly says.

As an interviewer, you want to sit back and be in control, but let the interviewee talk to the point of revealing information they may not realize was coming out. 

Keep cool under pressure

Connolly resided as an inmate for his role in “Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons” to understand his interviewees’ environments. 

As he puts it, he was a novelty at first and inmates were exciting to have a journalist interested in their point of view. However, when intrusive questioning began, inmates would often get angry or withdraw. 

“What I did was say, ‘Look this isn’t a good time, we can pick this up another time,' and start talking about something completely different.”

Connolly adds to remain confident and never make it personal. 

“Don’t apologise too much because you can’t show weakness, somehow that accelerates the anger.”

Do what makes you comfortable

It is slightly unnerving to realize that you might be interviewing a foreign leader, celebrity, or someone suspected of a criminal act from the same chair in your home that you endlessly binge on YouTube’s cat video algorithm late at night -- and your guest could be feeling the same way.

As you’re honing your skills for online interviewing, Connolly implores those learning the craft to do what they need to do to be calm, confident, and focused.

“Don’t listen to everyone else. Do what makes you comfortable, until you’re comfortable.”

See more of Paul Connolly in action on his Facebook Watch series “Curse of Akakor.”

The Journalism.co.uk Podcast with Jacob Granger is recorded using Blinder.