Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
July 12, 200910:16 PM

12 Ways To Conduct A Great Interview

"Just write out some questions and ask them." That could well be one of the biggest mistakes when it comes to conducting an interview.

A friend shot me an email this week and asked for my opinion on how to conduct a great interview (the fact that they thought I did this well was very flattering). Instead of letting the response die in a personal email chain, here:

12 Ways To Conduct A Great Interview:

  1. Don't conduct an interview, have a conversation. One of the biggest mistake people make in the interview setting is to conduct it like it appears in a magazine (question and answer). Don't make that mistake. Forget about the questions and just have a comfortable conversation. Keyword: comfortable.
  2. Do your homework. The only way to avoid getting stuck asking questions is to do so much research that you don't need them. Know your subject, know the issues and know what the public would want to know if they could sit down with the subject matter.
  3. Don't stick to your agenda. To make matters worse, most interviewers follow the questions that they have lined up in the order they wrote them, instead of letting it flow based on what the subject is saying. I've seen many great follow-up conversations and side-tracks lost because the interviewer was following their flow instead of the flow of the conversation.
  4. Have notes, not questions. It's ok to have some notes about concepts you would like to discuss, but don't hold it in your hand and look down at it - that will break the conversation and turn it into an interview.
  5. Ask open ended questions. Always start your questions or commentary with words like "how" and "why". Those two words can never be responded to with the words, "yes" or "no". If you want something more than one or two word answers, use words like "how" and "why".
  6. Open arms. Do your best to have nothing blocking you from your subject matter. This includes objects like recorders, pens, coffee tables, etc... In an ideal world, keep your arms open and your heart aimed at the subject matter's heart. I do not know why this works, but it does create a much more human connection - let nothing get in the way.
  7. If you're going to record it... start training yourself now to not say things like, "ummm" and "ahhhh." While it sounds natural in everyday chitter chatter, those little vocal stumbles sound extra annoying if you plan on publishing the audio file, and it's even more frustrating if you have to transcribe the audio to text. It's one of the hardest things to do, but be conscious of it.
  8. Don't say anything. This is an old journalism trick, but it works wonders. Many people have been interviewed many times and they know the questions they are most likely to be asked, so their answers are practiced and canned. If you want to get a little bit more out of them or something original, wait for five seconds after they finish their last sentence and do not say anything. More often than not, that moment of silence will get them thinking and they'll start speaking from their heart (and with a whole other perspective than their standard canned answers).
  9. Watch the clock. Try not to go over thirty minutes. You should be able to capture everything you need in fifteen minutes or less.
  10. Be the ambassador for your audience. Don't forget that your role as the interviewer is to ask the questions that your mass public would want the answer to if they could be in that room. They can't be there. You are. Be their ambassador. Ask the questions they want answered.
  11. Don't just take notes. Old school journalists don't record anything, they just take notes. Personally, I find it very distracting, and the act of taking notes separates you from the subject matter. You wind up focusing way too much on the note-taking or the typing instead of what matters most: the person in front of you. Invest in a good recorder (I use the M-Audio MicroTrack) and have a conversation. Worry about the transcription later. There's nothing more annoying than when a journalists says, "hold on, can you please slow down so that I can get this all written down." If that doesn't kill the flow, I don't know what does.
  12. Have fun. If you're stressed or focused on your notebook and the questions in it, your subject will "feel it" and will pick up on your nerves or apprehension. Remember that the best conversations are the fun conversations. Have fun.

Do you have any additional tips and tricks for conducting a great interview?

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Mitch Joel

    I definitely agree with the "conversation vs. interview" way of looking at it. If the result isn't mutually beneficial, it's not a good match to begin with. People often advise to "interview the interviewer," but that often results in an FAQ instead of each party getting a real feel for each other, etc.

    Thanks for the post, Mitch!

    Reply
  • Posted by Connie Crosby
    Mitch Joel

    Awesome list, Mitch. Lots of these I have to work on.

    I would add: even though you want it to be a conversation, focus on letting the person you are interviewing speak, and don't dominate the conversation yourself. Your listeners want to hear what the person you are interviewing has to say. They can hear your thoughts about the subject at hand at another time.

    Cheers,
    Connie

    Reply
  • Posted by GoingLikeSixty
    Mitch Joel

    Good conversationalists make good interviewers because they listen. That was your best point and deserved to be first.

    How and why questions of course are best, but sometimes a series of these can come across as challenging or predictable, or worse, boring.

    Some alternatives to sprinkle in from time to time
    "tell me more about that..."
    "and what was the result..."
    "when have others said about..."


    If stuck or confused, don't fake it. Let your subject know. (works only if a rapport has been established.)

    Reply
  • Posted by CJ Guest
    CJ Guest

    Thanks for the useful tips, Mitch. Great post!

    Reply
  • Posted by Amod Munga
    Mitch Joel

    Great post, Mitch. I used to freelance as a journo a while back and made use of most of these points.

    I especially like your point regarding conversation. I've found that one of the big things that comes out of this is that you need to be sincere. You must have a genuine interest in you subject and her opinions - or you're never going to be able to catch those nuggets of insight that make a great interview.

    IAlso, where possible, try to organise an interview in a coffee-shop or somewhere that there's other people. This helps most times to put the subject at ease.

    Also, try to arrive a few minutes ahead of your subject is a good idea. If you can see them as they enter the venue, then you can switch on your recording device before they get to the table. That way, you keep them relaxed and they don't seem to remember that you're actually interviewing them.

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    GoingLikeSixty mentions establishing a rapport... if there's any time at all, have a "pre-conversation" to find out more about the person than you're going to publish or comment on (like, they love auto racing). It adds a subtle but significant layer of colour to your conversation.

    Reply
  • Posted by Kevin Ertell
    Mitch Joel

    Interesting post, Mitch.

    While I understand your advice is designed for journalists, I actually think much of what you've said is very useful for people conducting job interviews as well. Over the years, I've gone from an interviewer who used a specific list of questions to one who goes with more of the type of conversational style you mention. I find the conversational style helps put people at ease, and I get a chance to understand better who they are and what they really think. Per your point about canned answers, many interviewees have plenty of canned answers to the standard questions, so this conversational styles helps to better pull out more sincerity and honesty.

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    I'd add, give the interviewee the last word. It's the polite thing to do.

    Reply
    • Posted by Alex
      Alex

      I agree!! I would not want to open up to an interviewer who talks too much and wants the last word - and I certainly would avoid following up with an interviewer if they annoyed me by topping everything I said.

      Reply
  • Posted by Penny
    Mitch Joel

    Great review of the basics for interviewers at any skill level. Thank you.

    I always end with "Is there anything I haven't asked about that you would like to say?"

    The gem quote of the interview has come out with some of those answers.

    And, depending on the subject, deadline and purpose of the interview, "Is there anyone else you think I should talk to about this topic?"

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    This is very helpful information for new bloggers, Mitch. A lot of people who are just getting started with small business marketing on social media are starting blogs.

    Often, when I suggest to new small business clients that they start blogging, the response is "but I'm not a journalist".

    The reality is that everyone has expertise to share. Interviewing role models can support your blog post/article argument and generate credibility (not to mention goodwill in the blogosphere & business community generated by supporting others)

    Reply
  • Posted by empatt
    Mitch Joel

    Really loved this - it was peer affirming.

    I interview too, tho not as a journalist. My niche in an internal management consultancy of a multinational is to interview as a "pre strategy" activity.

    My aim in the conversation is to challenge the interviewee to break through their current thinking and open out their positions even further.

    If you can get them to see the leverage opportunity of their refreshed and rechipped thinking, then you will get loads of gems.

    But trust is critical.

    Reply
  • Posted by Staria Clark
    Staria Clark

    This was extremely helpful! Thank you for writing this!

    Reply
  • Posted by Casey Stubbs
    Mitch Joel

    Thank you, I am going to be doing an interview for my blog and I am very nervous because the person is a big shot in the industry. I am very excited and looking forward to it.

    Thanks for these great points.

    Casey

    Reply
  • Posted by Tiffany
    Mitch Joel

    Thanks! Just started a blog and about to conduct my first video interview tomorrow. Your points and even the comments posted have been very helpful.

    Reply
  • Posted by Ade
    Mitch Joel

    Someone mentioned establishing rapport....as part of your research read their bio and find out if you have anything in common with the interviewee not related to the topic itself. You can mention this in your pre-conversation to make some kind of connection. I guess it's called small talk really...

    Reply
  • Posted by kelly
    Mitch Joel

    don't make them feel dumb by using intellectual words or by trying to dumb down every word so they "understand it"

    Reply
  • Posted by Luciano
    Mitch Joel

    I would add to chip chat some words before starting the interview in order to make the interviewee feel comfortable from the very beginning and to summarize some of his answers aloud to show that we are following him.

    Example: "So in your opinion the Federal Reserve should lower interest rates to boost economic growth and create employment".

    Reply
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    Mitch Joel

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    Reply
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  • Posted by Gabe
    Gabe

    The 5 second pause is great advice! I haven't heard that before but it makes total sense. I know that's also a good sales technique to some degree.

    Reply
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  • Posted by Hrushikesh Shinde
    Mitch Joel

    The 12 points share above are really going to help who reads it. But the best part of the total is the word have conversation. I am sure that we have to be alert and take the conversation in the right direction to get th required information for the candidate

    Reply
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