Interviews Workshop with Tom Tilley – Key Takeaways

Press Room blogger Evan Williams attended Tom Tilley’s Interviews workshop – here, he outlines the key takeaways from the workshop.

Tom Tilley has fast become one of Australia’s best interviewers. Whether he’s talking to an academic, a cyberpunk or a prime minister on Triple J’s Hack, Tilley is always able to cut to the core of an issue. Anything less, and he just might turn down the fader on his guest – as he had to do with Malcolm Turnbull and Anthony Albanese.

For the National Young Writers’ Festival, Tom generously and candidly shared his thoughts on interviewing in a three-hour workshop. Here’s what we learnt.

Narrative Arc

At the start of the workshop, Tom issued us with a disclaimer that ‘narrative arc’ is his catchphrase. He’s got his reasons.

When interviewing, you want to take it beyond just questions and answers. A narrative arc is the perfect way to do this, as it can make your interview more like a film – with recurring elements and themes that build to a resolution.

An arc is particularly crucial for the audience, as it gives the interview a sense of flow and direction they can easily lock into. Also, the climactic ending means they have no choice but to keep listening.

The Central Idea

Unfortunately, even the greatest narrative arc amounts to nothing unless you have one clear, central idea for your interview. Tom often asks people at Hack to pitch their story in one line. A question budding interviewers could easily pose to themselves before they set about conducting an interview, perhaps.

The Questions

When a workshop participant said they liked when interviewers asked the questions they would want to ask, Tom initially agreed, but added that he feels a responsibility to go one step further and ask the question that’s better than what people would think to ask.

For interviews that are more ‘interrogative’ (when interviewing a politician for specific answers on a specific policy, for example) Tom recommends a killer first question that might break things wide open. ABC 7.30’s Chris Uhlmann is one of the masters of this technique, as workshop participants saw in this clip of Uhlmann decimating former Liberal MP Jackie Kelly over the pamphlet scandal in the 2007 election.

For interrogative interviews, it’s also a good idea for the interviewer to anticipate the interviewees response and have questions prepared based on those responses. Tom has these response-questions mapped out in brackets underneath his initial questions.

Warning: Be careful not to let all this preparation get in the way of you being able to react to things on a personal level in the moment. As Tom put it, “sometimes when you’re in a rush you forget the most obvious question: Why?”

Theatre

One of Tom’s favourite pieces of advice he received was from fellow Triple J journo, Ronan Sharkey. Sharkey told him there is a key part of every interview, a part where people won’t want you to go – that’s the part you have to push at. When things get a bit uncomfortable and people are forced to defend their logic and think on the run, they’ll come out with their best stuff.

The tension that arises during this prodding – the silences between answers, the anticipation of a response – gives interviews that irresistible theatre. “It’s drama unfolding in the moment,” as Tom said.

Respect

In your pursuit for the perfect narrative arc or theatrical moment, it’s also important to remember to conduct your interview with respect and a sense of understanding for the person you’re interviewing. Always try to have a genuine human connection with them, and make sure you’ll be able to end your interview by saying thanks, I really do appreciate your time.

Well, in that case …

Thanks, Tom.

We really appreciated your time.

Miscellaneous Tidbits

Trivia:

Style tips:

  • Tom believes that on radio, it takes a lot of effort to sound normal, telling us “perform at 120 percent to make it sound 100 percent.”
  • Try not to buy yourself time to think by saying “ah”, “right” or “okay” in response to answers from your guest. Take the silence to think. It’s more theatrical anyway.

Trick of the trade:

  • If you want to avoid being punched in the face, don’t couch your questions as a personal attack. Instead, couch them as a public attack. One of Tom’s real-life examples that helped him escape from an interview unscathed: “What would you say to people who would say … “

Biography:

  • After studying Business at Uni, Tom worked at an investment bank in London and didn’t end up pursuing journalism in Australia until he was almost in his mid-20s. Welcomed news for those of us who aren’t the bright young cadet.