How to Conduct a Great Interview

My last couple of entries have been pretty high-level, so I thought I would come back to earth and devote the next couple of issues to something a little more practical: how to conduct a successful interview.

I’ve probably conducted 4,000 to 5,000 interviews in my 30 years as a journalist and have learned a few tips for making them go smoothly. For many people, interviews are intimidating and scary, but they don’t have to be.

Interviews are one of the most popular ways to generate content for a blog and they have the secondary benefit of establishing relationships with people who can raise visibility and awareness.

When you interview prominent people, they often link back to your site and provide a nice little boost in traffic. Interviews are a great way to get a social media effort off the ground. Here’s how to get started.

Be Prepared –- This is interviewing 101. Preparation has several beneficial effects. Not only does it enable you to ask better questions, but it’s a sign of courtesy and respect for the guest. Spend 15 minutes on a relevant website to come up to speed on your subject. It really shouldn’t take longer than that for a basic interview. Then integrate the information you find there into your questions. Your guest will be more cooperative and forthcoming as a result; I guarantee it.

Learn Something Personal -– The Web is a wonderful tool for researching people as well as companies. Between public profiles and Twitter feeds, you can learn all kinds of interesting things about a person’s hobbies, history and passions. Use this information as an icebreaker: “I understand you backpacked across America. I’ve always wanted to do that.” This gets people talking about something that really invigorates them. The rest of the session will be more relaxed as a result.

Flatter Your Subject — There’s no faster way to get a subject to warm to you than to share a statement like “I absolutely loved your book.” If the setting is somewhat confrontational, a little compliment at the front can diffuse the tension. You don’t need to be disingenuous; chances are you can find something to admire even if you don’t agree with the person.

You Don’t Have To Read the Whole Book -– Authors are popular interview subjects because they’re willing and available. You should make it a point to read at least some of their work, but there’s no reason you have to read it all. I find that scanning the table of contents, reading the introduction and skimming the first couple of chapters will usually tell you most of what you need to know about a business book. That should take you no more than a half-hour. Business books tend to be repetitive, anyway, so the good stuff is usually at the front.

Prepare Questions But Be Ready To Discard Them -– We’ve all heard those painful interviews in which a novice questioner insists on reading through a list of prepared questions regardless of what the subject says. This creates a disjointed and awkward conversation. You should absolutely prepare questions, but use them as notes to make sure you hit on important subjects or use them to restart the conversation when you hit a dead end. Mark the ones that you absolutely need to ask, but don’t make the questions a goal. Following up, redirecting and exploring new paths are the essence of good conversation. The same goes for an interview.

One question that stirs some debate is whether subjects should be allowed to see questions before an interview. If the meeting isn’t confrontational and the speaker is uncomfortable, I say sure. However, public figures and experienced executives shouldn’t need this nicety. If you do provide questions in advance, be sure to note that you intend to take the conversation in whatever direction you need. Never promise to stick only to the prepared list.

Be Interested -– This is the most important bit of advice I can offer. The person you’re interviewing is probably passionate about the subject matter. The more you can channel that interest, the more forthcoming your subject will be. Even if the topic doesn’t rivet you, pretend it does. Lean forward in your chair, look the subject in the eye and nod occasionally to show that you are following the conversation. Laugh or show pain at appropriate points in the discussion. If conducting the interview by phone, an occasional “Mmm-hmmm” confirms that you’re there and engaged.

Restate and Confirm –- If you’ve ever taken a course in active listening, you know the value of this technique. Tell the person what you believe you just heard him say. This shows that you’re listening and avoids problems that stem from misinterpretation. If you can restate the message more succinctly than your subject, ask if you can attribute your words to him. Usually, people are happy to be edited in this way.

Lob A Few Softballs -– if you dive right into the heavy stuff, you risk putting your subject on the defensive and derailing the interview. Start off with some easy questions: “Tell me about your background,” or “How did you get into this line of work to begin with?” Small talk works in social settings and the same goes for formal interviews.

In my next entry, I’ll go into more details about how to guide the course of an interview and handle problems. Meanwhile, share your advice for how to prepare and start an interview below. If you can link to some particularly well structured interviews that you or others have published, so much the better.

Meanwhile, if you want to see how badly an interview can go, check out the video clip on my blog that goes with the photo below. It’s from an old Bob Newhart show and it’s one of my favorites.

A Personal Plea to Support the NewComm Forum

The New Communications Forum is the one social media event I attend every single year. That’s because the speakers at this conference, which is now in its sixth year, are predictably incredible. I’m not talking about me; I’m referring to people like Kami Huyse, Geoff Livingston, Shel Holtz, Shel Israel, Maggie Fox, Katie Paine, Jackie Huba, Francois Gossieaux, Geno Church, Dharmesh Shah, Brian Solis and many others. These are, quite simply, the people I most respect and listen to in the social media realm.

NewComm Forum takes place the week after next in San Mateo, CA. The keynote presentation on Thursday, April 22 is by Scott Monty, whose accomplishments at socializing the Ford Motor Company’s marketing programs are deserving of a lifetime achievement award. People told me that last fall’s presentation on The Hyper-Social Organization by Gossieaux and Ed Moran of Deloitte Services actually changed their lives. I know it had a huge impact on me. You can hear an updated version on Wednesday, April 21.

I’ve asked you to support the Forum before, but I’m doing so now with new urgency. Registrations are down this year, whether because of the economy or the flood of new competition or something else. The Forum has always existed on a shoestring budget and I worry about its future if it doesn’t meet attendance goals this year. Believe me when I say that no other event will send you home with as many new insights, ideas and action items as this one.

The organizers have made $500 speaker discounts available if you register with the code NCF500. They’ve also added a one-day pass for $395 if you register with code NCF1D. If you happen to be in the Silicon Valley area, the latter option is a no-brainer. Please support this valuable event and assure its health into the future. Tweet it to your followers using hashtag #ncf2010. And thanks for listening to this final plea from me.

New Slides for Your Viewing Pleasure

I recently developed a three-hour presentation on Blogging Basics that features a brand new slide deck. This presentation is much heavier on tips and tactics than any I’ve given before. It includes dozens of ideas for overcoming writer’s block, creating headlines and promoting content through multiple social media channels. I hope you find it useful. Contact me if you want a version customized for your audience.

Speaking of multiple channels, last week I presented the interim findings of my research on multi-channel social media deployment, called “Social
Marketing Goes Multiplatform
.” The webinar was hosted by my principal sponsor, Awareness Networks, and you can download the slide deck about the research and several case studies at the link above.

Tip of the Week: AVS Video Converter

If you do presentations with video clips, you know what a hassle it can be to embed videos from YouTube and other sites into PowerPoint. In fact, PowerPoint doesn’t support the popular Flash FLV format natively, meaning that you must convert downloaded videos into WMV, AVI or some other standard. There are various tools you can buy to do this, but several Firefox plug-ins have recently emerged that make the whole process free and easy.

The one I’ve been using is called AVS Video Converter. The plug-in becomes part of your Firefox toolbar and with one click you can download videos from YouTube and about 200 other sites to your local hard drive. With another click, you can convert them to other popular formats. Then just embed them in PowerPoint and you’re ready to go. Open source is a wonderful thing!

Just For Fun Twofer

We don’t have a killer Just For Fun this week, so we’ll give you two mini-gems to choose from. The first is this video of a performance of The Nutcracker somewhere in Russia. If you’ve ever been a member of the ensemble at a play, you’ll appreciate the antics of the person dressed as a tiger at the back left. He steals the show from the two principal dancers. We can also assume he got his walking papers immediately after exiting the stage, but not before creating a memorable swan song.

The second treat is this collection of behind-the-scenes photos of Disney’s River Country water park. Shuttered in 2001, the park doesn’t appear on any Disney maps or signs, but it’s still alive if not exactly kicking. We love Disney and always marvel at the pristine perfection of its resorts, which is what makes the broken down wreck of the dilapidated River Country all the more incongruous.

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