Whether you are blogging to build your brand, keeping abreast of thought leadership in your field, or trying to break into podcasting—you can’t afford not to become a skillful interviewer.
The best interviewers make it look so easy. Larry King comes to mind—probing what made Brando tick (and even getting the inscrutable Hollywood icon to plant a kiss on his cheek). And then there’s Oprah, who makes interviewing seem like half cocktail party schmooze and half spiritual journey. Interviewing—an art that was once the exclusive province of career journalists and television personalities—has become an essential new-media skill. And it is anything but easy. An effective interview takes careful preparation, laser-focused listening, smooth facilitation, and nimble follow-up.
When I took a job as a magazine editor in 2010, I had a whole lot of experience with writing, but I had never actually conducted professional interviews. It was either sink or swim—and, over the next two years I interviewed over 200 subjects for about 70 different stories. My interviewees were not film icons or pop stars. They were civil servants, authors, government officials, and philanthropists—dedicated professionals whose peers looked to them for ideas and leadership. They taught me how to do my homework and how to guide a fruitful dialogue. Here’s what I learned:
Rule 1: Do your homework
Ask to be educated. Good questions require basic knowledge. As I discovered, the best way to get the context necessary to frame excellent questions is to ask the interviewee (or the interviewee’s administrative assistant) to help you prepare. Here are some of the best context-building questions you can ask:
- What print or online resources can you point me toward, so that I can make the most of our interview time?
- Do you have any literature you offer the public (or shareholders, vendors, or prospective clients) that you feel would help me come up to speed on the key issues and terminology on this topic?
- Are there common misconceptions related to this topic that you could help me avoid?
Questions like these not only build a quick knowledge base—but they demonstrate to the interviewee your commitment, your sensitivity to their concerns, and your willingness to learn.
What is more, when an interviewee has invested in your education (if only in the form of providing a link or two), he or she is much more likely to find your list of questions engaging and intelligent. It’s just common sense. When you help teach someone, you root for that person’s success.
Once you’ve completed your crash course on the interview topic, it’s time to send a follow-up email. The purpose of the follow-up is twofold:
- Explain that you’ll be submitting a list of questions within the next day or two.
- Suggest a few different possible interview times that will allow the subject enough time to read and give thought to your questions.
Rule 2: Guide the dialogue
Now that you’ve got a working knowledge of the topic, it’s time to prepare the questions. Here’s how to make sure you’re always prepared to elicit the best from your subject.
Before the interview:
Brainstorm a list of every relevant question that you are genuinely curious to know the answer of. (If you don’t care about the answers, it’s usually pretty evident to the interviewee.)
Examine all of the brainstormed questions in light of the ultimate purpose of the interview is. (If you have a friend or colleague who represents the target audience, ask that person to pick out the most important questions from your list.)
Determine a final list of no more than four questions. (One rule of thumb I learned through trial and error was that a good, relevant question typically requires a 10-15 minute answer.)
Email your list. Begin the message with a brief explanation that your questions represent merely a proposed agenda for the interview—and that if any seem irrelevant or incomplete, you would welcome suggestions and revisions. Include a reminder of the interview time—and ask that any proposed question changes be sent to you by the day before. Mention that you plan to record the interview—and ask whether that poses any problem.
Plan to record the interview. (I use a $19.95 Skype app called ECamm Call Recorder that allows for easy recording and file manipulation of every Skype interview. )
Re-send interview questions an hour or two before the interview as a courtesy—with a short note saying you’re looking forward to the conversation and just wanted to make sure questions were close at hand.
During the interview:
Remind and review. When the interview time arrives, begin by reminding the interviewer of why you’re doing the interview, mention that questions were just re-sent, and review what you hope your audience will learn from the completed article or recording. Mention that you are about to begin recording, ask whether there are any questions or concerns to be addressed before the recording begins.
Converse, don’t “Go down the list.” Use the question list you prepared merely as a guide—but never, ever follow a list slavishly. Listen carefully to your interviewee. Follow her cues. Take a line of questioning in a new direction if it seems promising. Ask for clarification if something puzzles you.Remember that the only reason for a question list is to provide structure for a rich dialogue.
Remember your manners. As with any other conversation, rules of basic etiquette apply.
Remember these four rules of polite conversation as you ask your questions and consider the subject’s answers:
- Remember to use the person’s name when you ask questions.
- Don’t ever interrupt.
- Don’t turn the conversation to yourself. While it’s normal to offer one’s own experiences in conversations with friends, it’s not good journalistic practice. This is purely about the interviewee and her areas of knowledge and experience. Your enthusiasm is wonderful. Your comments about whether or not you can relate are inappropriate.
- If the conversation seems to be going off topic, wait for the interviewee to finish a thought—and then simply say, “Thank you for that. If I may, I’d like to change the subject and ask you about ______.”
As you wrap up an interview, ask what kind of follow-up your subject would like. Most want the opportunity to review the draft article or recording. I always agree—explaining that I will gladly send a first draft and will welcome any corrections of factual errors at that stage. I also clarify that stylistic or other editorial revision is the job of the staff. (You’d be surprised how many interviewees get nit-picky about word choice and style once they’ve been offered a draft.)
Finally, I explain when the finished product will be published and in what form—and I ask the subject whether he’d like to be sent a copy or an email with a link.
Here’s the greatest reward of interviewing—the part I didn’t expect when I rolled up my sleeves to do the research. When you do your job thoroughly and with great care for the concerns and reputations of others, you gain supporters. If you capture well the voice and the priorities of the person who has shared valuable time and insight with you, you will gain an advocate and an ally.
And perhaps even a whole new network of experts and advisors!
If you have a great interview story or a technique to share, we would love to hear in the comments below.