Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
April 6, 2011 9:53 PM

9 Ways To A Better Interview

Whether you're looking for a job, hiring people or interviewing people for your Blog or Podcast, the ability to drill down and get the best answers possible is an art form.

Having strong interviewing skills are critical to success. Why? As a Marketer you will have to create stories and you will have to dig deep with your clients and the agencies you work with to get that story out of people. I've had the pleasure of interviewing thousands (yes, thousands) of people over the years. I've also had the pleasure of being interviewed many times. Being on both sides of the recorder over the years has given me a unique perspective into what it takes to create the right atmosphere to get the right answers out of people.

Here are 9 ways to a better interview:

  1. Record it. The price of a digital recorder is under thirty bucks. Record your conversations. Trying to write or type does two things. One, it distracts you from the conversation and the possible opportunity to expand on a thought. Two, it's a distraction to the person being interviewed if they have to slow down for your writing or if they hear the clicking of your keys. This will force their attention away from their own thoughts. One additional tip: try not to hold the recorder in their face. Let it sit on the table and make sure that no blinking lights are going off. Don't create a barrier between you and your subject.
  2. Care about the topic. If you don't care about the topic that will be covered, don't do the interview. The only way to get a great interview is to have a passion for the subject... and not just the subject matter expert. If you don't care, you're audience won't care either.
  3. Know the subject. If you don't know the details of the person you are interviewing (do your research!), then don't bother. If the person wrote a book and you have to ask, "why did you write a book?" it's a clear indication that you have not studied the subject.
  4. Don't follow your questions. Most journalists have a set of questions and they ask them either in the order they came up them or in the way in which they envision writing the article. Don't do this. Know the areas you would like to cover by having bullet points about the topical areas, but know that getting the answer to every question you have is not half as important as really creating something special with your interview. Which leads me to... 
  5. Create a conversation. Question and answers are not a conversation. Jumping from one question to another will not foster a conversation. Lead a conversation with the subject matter expert. If they're going off on a tangent, keep them focused but go down roads in the conversation that weren't on your list of topics to cover.
  6. Go with the flow. Most people being interviewed have been interviewed a lot and they have standard answers or turns of a phrase that work for them. The best interviews are the ones that create a conversation, and this happens when the interviewer (that's you) is able to break away from their preconceived notions of what the conversation should be and run along - in the moment - and go where the conversation takes you. Trust me, the results will surprise and delight you.
  7. Shut-up. The best lines come out of silence. When the interviewee is finished answering one of your questions, sit for a few seconds and don't say anything. This will usually force them to say more. It's a standard journalist trick, but it works wonders. People hate silence and feel the need to fill the void with words. When this happens, the more natural things come out... and that's usually the gold.
  8. Remove yourself. Think about the audience. Too many people giving interviews think that they're important because they get to speak with this special individual. It's a big mistake. Think of yourself as a conduit. What information would your audience love to ask this individual? What would they love to ask this person if they could have dinner with them? Be the voice of the audience. This is how great stories come out... and get told.
  9. Know when to cut it. If the subject is boring or seems uninterested and there's nothing you can do to snap them out of it, cut the interview short. If they're babbling on and on, find your place to break their pace. On top of that, understand your audience and their threshold for content. Doing a great interview is like attending a great party: you never want to be the first person to leave, but you never want to overstay your welcome either.

What would you add to this list? 

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Steve langston
    Steve langston

    Love the few seconds of silence tip. Will use that for sure. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  • Posted by Don Macdonald
    Don Macdonald

    Download NPR Fresh Air podcast, listen to Terry Gross and learn from a master.

    It's also important to ask open-ended questions -- starting with what, how, why -- rather than closed questions that elicit yes or no answers. Closed questions limit responses before they've even begun.

    Reply
    • That's one of the rookie mistakes I see happen all-too-often: asking a question that can be answered with a "yes" or a "no." If you're dealing with someone seasoned, they will just answer with one word. Brutal.

      Reply
  • Posted by Isabelle
    Mitch Joel

    It's an interesting post because good interviewers are rare. A good interview is also the result of being well prepared and being able to adapt to the interviewee's pace.

    Reply
  • Posted by Ramsey Mohsen
    Mitch Joel

    #3 is the most important IMO. I will delay an interview if I'm not prepared with understanding the person I'm interviewing. Primarily because the way you structure your questions should be essentially phrases that are platforms to get you're interviewee to naturally flow into their speciality or what they know best. Sure you can interject some tough questions to mix it up, but for the most part it's best to just enable the interviewee to feel comfortable and do the talking.

    Reply
  • Posted by TK
    TK

    7. is incredibly important, especially for journalists starting out. Even if you are doing a Q&A, you are not as clever as you think you are. Don't cut off subjects just to get something clever in.

    Reply
  • Nos. 4-5 are especially important for marketing people interviewing their clients, their clients' customers and other stakeholders in the discovery phase of planning. Great understanding and great conversation go together.

    If I were to add something, it would be similar to #8. In addition to thinking about the audience, think about person you're interviewing. I think it's related to what Don MacDonald's point about Terry Gross, and it's why Larry King was good at what he did.

    Reply
  • Posted by Steve Jones
    Mitch Joel

    Hand in hand with "shut up" and "coversation" is one key thing to remember: LISTEN! In the course of conversation, most of us are thinking ahead to what we want to say and we fail to listen to the nuances of what is being said to us. When the other person is speaking, shut your brain down and listen to what is being said. Understand it. Then pause, think, and form your reply. Great interviewers find gems in replies because they listen as carefully as they speak.

    Reply
  • Posted by Joe Sorge
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch,
    Thanks for the tips here. As I interview more and more guests I wonder if i could be doing it better. These are a great baseline.

    Reply
  • Posted by Kevin September
    Kevin September

    Excellent guidance Mitch. I have interviewed rockstars and business leaders, and currently conduct candid on-camera interviews to capture consumer insights. Everyone has a great story inside them, and Points 5, 6 + 8 are the keys to unlocking it!

    Reply
  • Posted by Sue Horner
    Mitch Joel

    Great list! Something else I often do is ask at the end of the interview, "Is there anything else we haven't talked about that would be important to include in the article?" Often this either pulls out something completely new or reinforces the particular points the person wants to make. Either way, invaluable!

    Reply
    • That's an interesting one. It's actually something I have stopped doing. I've had mixed results with ending on that question. Primarily because:

      1. It gives a slight hint that you may not know everything about your subject, and I've been in instances where people have said, "didn't you do your research?" Yes, that happened.

      2. Many people end with this question and I found that by not ending like that, it was separating me from the pact... but that's just me.

      It's a great question (don't get me wrong), but I think it depends on situation and scenario.

      Reply
  • Posted by Jeremie Averous
    Mitch Joel

    Hi Mitch
    What strikes me is that except for point 1, the rest is exactly what you do in a coaching conversation. In particular the silence part, going with the flow, and knowing when you stray too far from the initial objective.
    And I totally agree with Sue, once you have established that special emotional connection with the interviewee, finish with an open question to just open the possibilities to unknown territory
    Great stuff
    Thanks

    Reply
  • Posted by Hannah
    Hannah

    One other key: if you don't COMPLETELY understand the answer, follow up until you do. Don't be afraid to ask small, specific questions in order to understand what the interviewee is saying. You may find that s/he doesn't understand his/her own answers very well at all.

    Reply
  • Posted by Chip Noon
    Mitch Joel

    Hi Mitch, just watched your talk at radian6, and what you're saying here follows, and that's: know your audience. If we all remember who the audience is...and that they are the most important part of the interview...we'll stay on track. I always advise my clients that they are really performers: leave 'em laughing! Or leave them with some reaction, that's the idea, I think.

    Reply
  • Hey Mitch,

    I loved these 9 tips. Also loved how concise and to the point you made them.

    The person I've learned a ton from about this topic is a Canadian talk show host turned copywriter/marketer named Shaune Clarke.

    It's his belief (and now mine) that your richest marketing copy comes from doing one on one phone or in person interviews with buyers of the product you're selling. They give you all the real emotional words and stories you need.

    And you're so right about making it conversational. Shaune also points out this fact about how your marketing should be the same way. Thanks Mitch for sharing your knowledge!

    Reply
  • Posted by Paul Castain
    Mitch Joel

    You know Mitch, I was just having a second listen to both your Gary V and Seth Godin interviews and had made a note to try and define some of the things you were doing that contributed to those awesome interviews . . . you just made it easy for me.

    Thanks!

    Respectfully,
    Paul Castain

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    Great list! Shutting up is hard for many people to do because their brain is filling in every moment with reactions, ideas and questions. Susan Scott says it this way: All conversations are with myself and sometimes they involve other people"

    I trick I have learned to use is to take notes even when I am using a recorder. This directs my brains' attention to what I am hearing and "keeps the noise at bay." When I have that thought pop in, I write that down to to empty the tray so to speak.

    Reply
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