The Art of Interviewing Others
If you need to interview someone for a blog post, news story, book research, or another professional endeavor, here are some helpful tips.
Get Clarity on Your Goals
To save time and get the most out of your interview, be sure you understand exactly what you hope to accomplish with each interview.
Do Your Homework
Before you interview someone, learn what you can about them and their area of expertise as it relates to your interview, as well as some personal facts. This will allow you to tailor your interview appropriately and relate better to the person you’re interviewing.
Prepare Your Questions
Avoid questions that allow a yes or no answer. Start questions with How, Why, Can you explain, or Will you describe. Your early questions should be softballs, easy for your interview subject to answer. Allow a little time to build rapport before you ask the hard ones. I recommend against sending questions ahead of time. Certainly, share the topics to be covered, but sharing questions early allows your subject to provide canned responses, making the interview boring for everyone.
Check Your Equipment
Whether your interview is face-to-face, via video chat, or on the phone, make sure your recording and communication equipment is charged and ready. Test it early enough that any technical difficulties can be fixed before the interview is scheduled.
Start the Interview in Control
Take a deep breath and focus. Calm your body. Straighten your back and walk in as though you were born to do this interview. Remember, your interview subject may be nervous, too. The best thing you can do is to exude a calm, friendly, competent demeanor. As you begin the interview, you can put your subject at ease by matching their body language and verbal style. If they are informal, be more relaxed. If they are formal, keep it there.
Remind your subject what your goals are and how long the interview should last. If you haven’t already, note the proper spelling of the subject’s name and ask for their title.
Listen Actively and Allow Some Lulls in the Conversation
If you can, record the interview electronically, so the only notes you have to take are ones about things that catch your attention–an unexpected comment or a moment of hesitation that may benefit from a follow-up question. You can have your prepared questions close at hand to get you back on track, if necessary, but it’s best to listen closely and go where the interview takes you.
When your subject appears finished with an answer, pause before jumping in with the next question. Many times, that slightly uncomfortable silence will encourage an interview subject to keep going, to share a little more. Many times, that slightly uncomfortable silence will encourage an interview subject to keep going, to share a little more.
Repeat Key Points, Especially if They’re Technical
To be sure you fully understand a key point, ask your subject if you can repeat it back to them, especially if you’re gathering complex information about a topic you don’t know very well. This will show your subject you’re listening and if you stumble in the retelling, you know what your next question should be.
Follow the 80/20 Rule
Allow your subject to talk 80 percent of the time. It’s fine to share a little about yourself or interject some humor or comments that show you’re engaged and interested, but remember not to talk too much.
Redirect if you Must
If you’re pressed for time, don’t be afraid to gently interrupt and redirect your subject back to the topic at hand with a comment like, “I’d love to hear more about that another time, but since we only have 15 minutes left, could you tell me more about _________?”
Don’t Write the Story Before You Hear It
Be open to ideas that don’t conform to your preconceived notions. If an answer doesn’t fit with your worldview or your understanding of the topic at hand, ask for more information. It’s okay to courteously push a little. You could say, “That’s interesting. Some people think just the opposite. Can you share how you came to your conclusion?”
Always End With This Question
When you’ve asked everything you can think to ask, always end with, “What should I have asked that I didn’t?”