How to Conduct a Great Interview, Part 1

My last couple of newsletters 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 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?” Smalltalk 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 this video clip from an old Bob Newhart show. It’s one of my favorites.

5 thoughts on “How to Conduct a Great Interview, Part 1

  1. Hi Paul,

    Thank you. We can all use more help in this area–and it makes us better conversationalists overall. Here are three more tips that I’ve learned as a qualitative marketing research interviewer:

    * If you’re trying to learn about behavior–especially future behavior–ask about what they did under similar circumstances in the past. People are notoriously poor predictors of the future, but most people behave consistently given similar needs and wants, even when the alternatives change.

    * Ask “how” and “what” questions rather than “why” questions. They tend to stimulate deeper thinking.

    * In general, ask questions that require people to think, rather ones where they’ll have answers top of mind. They’ll find the interview more interesting and so will you and those with whom you share results.

  2. I really enjoyed reading these tips as I have been doing tons of interviews with social entrepreneurs and business philanthropists for my blog: Often when I have transcribed my interviews, I have cringed at how bad I was in the interview. Fortunately, my subjects have all been totally amazing, so who cares about me?
    So I guess one last tip that really helps with interviews is to pick a person who is a great talker about a great subject. If not- one really needs to have some good interviewing skills.
    Thanks for your help with that.

  3. Pingback: How to Conduct a Great Interview, Part 2 |

  4. “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.”

    I came across your blog and read this post. I thought this was a good tip. Sometimes it is awkward as to how to start out, but I like this ice breaker.

    David Crabtree
    webmaster – ad network

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