Whether you play a role in hiring candidates for your company, finding out client requirements for new projects, or creating case studies, press releases, podcasts, and other content, you'll have to get comfortable with interviewing people. However, this is a skill that might not come naturally and could even feel like the most demanding part of your job. In this article, we'll share several techniques that will help you prepare like a pro, ask better questions, and make interviews more enjoyable and productive.
- Investing in Preparation
If you work for a rapidly growing company that’s on a hiring binge or have other reasons for needing to conduct a lot of interviews in a short timeframe, it can be tempting to fly by the seat of your pants, particularly if you consider yourself to be a good conversationalist. But while doing so might seem more efficient in the short term, it will likely leave a lot of potential insights on the table because you won’t get to understand your interviewees before you talk to them.
Legendary broadcaster Charlie Rose is known for creating a highly focused atmosphere during his interviews that’s mirrored in how they’re shown on screen– no ticker or special effects, just him and the guest talking. While Rose’s delivery seems effortless, it’s actually the product of deep research into the person sitting across from him.
“I may prepare more than most because I think preparation is a liberating element of the process,” Rose said in an interview for Forbes. “The more prepared you are, the more you do with the interview. It’s hard to do a great interview without a lot of preparation because preparation gives you an opportunity to go in directions you might not otherwise because you know things. Whatever a person says, you want to be able to have an architecture that allows you to respond with the next question and the next question and the next question. You get that architecture from preparation.”
Rose went on to suggest finding profiles, speeches, and any other resources that can provide solid background information on the person you’re preparing to interview. Their résumé, LinkedIn profile, and social media accounts can all provide clues to where you should direct your efforts. If they’ve spoken at a conference, contributed to their previous company’s blog, or put out other content, this can help you understand what makes them unique. Volunteer work, hobbies, and other outside interests are also good research fodder.
Or if you’re preparing to interview one of your company’s clients, hit up anyone else who has worked with them in the past to find out how they’re using products or services, how they’ve expanded over the years, and what their initial pain points were. You can also search online and use the same process already suggested for a job candidate to find a few compelling tidbits.
- Coming Up with Better Questions
Once you’ve taken Rose’s advice and done some digging into your interviewee’s background, it’s time to move onto the next step of your due diligence: putting together a list of questions. Not every great interviewer does this. Larry King, who we’ll hear from in the next tip, famously avoided jotting any down before the conversation started, while other expert interviewers just note their first question or two to get the ball rolling. But if you’re still gaining experience in this area, would be more anxious without a written structure to fall back on, or both, then creating even a brief set of questions will be helpful.
Dean Nelson, the founder and director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University, has honed his reporting skills in contributing to The New York Times and The Boston Globe. In his book Talk to Me, Nelson states that in some ways, everyone is an interviewer and defines an interview as “a purposeful series of questions that leads to understanding, insight, and perspective on a given topic” and believes that the quality of the answers is a direct result of what you ask. He goes on to share his blueprint for asking better questions and structuring them.
First, he consolidates all the notes he made during his research and any questions that they prompted, along with those that other people suggested he should ask. These need to be consolidated into open-ended, original questions that will elicit interesting responses. Once he has these, Nelson groups his shorter list by assigning a letter to each question that is related to another. So if you were asking several things about a candidate’s work experience, you can mark these with an A, while other interests could be a B, and their potential role with your company a C.
Then Nelson suggests numbering all the As, Bs, and Cs in a logical order, starting with A-1, then A-2, etc. If you’re preparing to interview a famous person, make sure you’re not being lazy and asking the same things that they’re always grilled about. Consider what you’d be fascinated to learn if you were one of your readers, listeners, or viewers, and which lines of conversation would be different and intriguing to your interviewee, so they don’t go into autopilot.
Once you’ve grouped your question list and whittled it down to a reasonable number (with the time constraints of the interview in mind), it’s time to put them in order. This is when Nelson asks himself three questions:
- What do I need to know?
- What does my audience need to know?
- What’s the most effective way to get my source to answer 1 and 2?
If you’re not reporting for a news station, writing for a magazine, or hosting a podcast, you might not have an audience and so can skip number two. The point is to remember the purpose of the interview and what you want to get from it. Remember that the other person is hoping to have a good experience too – this is going to be a back-and-forth, conversational interview, not an interrogation.
- Putting People at Ease and Actively Listening
One of the keys to conducting a great interview is to set the right tone from the start. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be on time, greet people warmly, and make a little small talk before you begin. But what next? Terry Gross has had plenty of practice getting this pivotal moment right, having interviewed more than 14,000 guests since she first started hosting Fresh Air in 1975. In a New York Times profile piece, Gross shared that while there are often incisive questions on her list, she leaves them until later so that her interviewee can get comfortable and ease into the conversation. Instead, she says just four simple words: “Tell me about yourself.”
This is open-ended enough to give the subject a sense of control and will likely divulge something related to at least one of your questions, allowing you to go there next. Or if not, Gross says that you don’t need to throw your playbook out the window, but rather pivot nimbly and then come back to some of the other things you wanted to ask once they’ve elaborated on their first point. “This seems kind of obvious, but you have to listen to what the person is saying,” she said in a different interview with Writer’s Digest. “And, when somebody tells you something heartfelt or personal, don’t move on to the next question as if nothing’s happened. Acknowledge that the person has just given you a gift by sharing something meaningful. Be sensitive to that and follow up.”
In other words, be empathetic, understanding, and curious in what you ask next. Here it’s good to ask simple questions like, “How did you deal with that?” or “What happened next?” depending on how their initial answer stoked your curiosity. Maybe you also reciprocate by letting them know how what they said impacted you or sharing something similar from your own life. This might seem counterintuitive, but according to author Gretchen Rubin, one of the things she learned from another master interviewer, Oprah Winfrey, is that she “talked herself. There's a tricky balance for interviewers -- you don't want to talk too much yourself, but perhaps counter-intuitively, if you talk too little, an interview can fall flat.” This is an important part of the art of conversation – even though the interview is about them, not you, there’s got to be some give-and-take on both sides.
To guide an interview in this way with just the right combination of structure and spontaneity, you cannot let your mind wander for even a moment. Larry King shared with Entrepreneur that one of the most important lessons he learned during his 60-year career in communications was the importance of staying fully present. “Tune out yesterday’s interview,” he said. “That’s over. Tune out tomorrow’s interview, that’s still to come. If I’m doing a strike worker at a plant today and a president tomorrow, I’m not thinking about the president.” As much as it might be tempting to imitate him or any of the other Mount Rushmore interviewers already mentioned, King advised against it. Sure, do your preparation, ask interesting questions, actively listen, and improvise when necessary. But ultimately, you’ll form a stronger connection with any interviewee if you remember two words of his advice: “Be yourself.”