Some interviewees on television and radio news programmes just can’t resist the temptation to address the interviewer by their first name.
Not only can this become grating for the viewer or listener, it’s also potentially counter-productive for the interviewee.
I say “potentially” because there are no hard-and-fast rules on whether/when to talk to the interviewer on first name terms. The advice is to be very careful before you do slip into “John” and “Jeremy” mode if you happen to be on the BBC Today programme or Newsnight.
The biggest culprits are politicians. They fail to realise how this cosy form of address reinforces the perception in many people’s minds the politicians are becoming more and more remote from the people who elected them and that their horizons do not extend beyond the Westminster village bubble.
For a start, a political interviewee should not be addressing John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman; rather, they should be talking to the listener or viewer THROUGH Humphrys or Paxman. The non-stop littering of an interview with first name terms suggests that it’s just a two-way conversation from which the audience are excluded.
Unfortunately, the politicians are now increasingly being parroted by other interviewees who think they can big themselves up by appearing to be mates of the presenter of the programme.
It is a dangerous practice. Referring to your interviewer by their first name can backfire dramatically. This is especially the case when the interviewee is under fire, facing hostile questioning or caught up in some controversy where they are trying to defend their position. Resorting to over-familiarity with the interviewer can leave the impression with the audience that the interviewee is trying to curry favour in the hope of getting easy questions. Furthermore, no respectable interviewer will be swayed by this. Their questioning will not be softened because their interviewee wants to be all matey. It’s best for an interviewee, in such circumstances, to keep distance between themselves and their interviewer.
On the other hand, there are interviews or broadcasting slots where being on first name terms is perfectly appropriate. If the interview subject is non-controversial, you might come across as being rather stiff by referring to “Mr. Humphrys”. Or, you might be taking part in a phone-in programme where everybody is on first name terms. That’s another occasion when you might sound a little formal by referring to callers by their surname. On the other hand, if you are getting a right hammering by callers, you might prefer to avoid first name terms.
The advice is basically this: think seriously before you go on the air about the exact circumstances of the interview and the type of programme on which you will be appearing. Then, make a judgement on whether you wish to be fairly familiar with your interviewer. If it sounds as though you’re trying to ingratiate yourself with your interviewer in order to get out of the hole you’re in, the audience will react against you. On the other hand, if – during a fairly relaxed, non-confrontational encounter – you come across as being aloof, viewers and listeners will also take against you.
It’s not an easy decision – but one any interviewee needs to make before walking through the studio door.