Introduction: How to Interview – What I Learned after 20 Years of Interviewing
Interviewing is an art, but one that anyone can learn with practice. As an introvert, and someone who grew up in a culture where she constantly heard that children should be seen and not heard, I have sharpened my listening skills over the years. But expert interviewing is so much more than active listening because you can be a great listener, yet a lousy interviewer.
In my over 20 years of interviewing, I have made a lot of mistakes, but I would like to think they have made me a better interviewer. I have been interviewed several times, but I am more accustomed to interviewing people. Interestingly enough, one of the biggest mistakes I made was when I was being interviewed, but the lesson made me a better interviewer. Although this blog post is not about employment interviewing, some of the tips are applicable.
A very well connected person interviewed me once because someone whom she trusted recommended me, but I screwed up the interview because I was speaking too quickly. I squandered a major opportunity, but the interviewer was kind enough to give me feedback. Because she was accustomed to people around her speaking quickly, she hadn’t realized that I was speaking so fast until she was listening to the recording. By that time, I had been interviewing for years, but had not realized that I spoke too quickly. She gave me feedback because she also had to learn how to speak slower to become a more effective interviewer. I was very upset about the wasted opportunity, but being aware of what I was doing wrong was a major lesson and an eye opener for me. I made a big sign, “SPEAK SLOWER” then placed it in a prominent spot, so that every time I was interviewing someone, I would see the sign, which forced me to slow down until it was second nature. Five years later, I remind myself to speak slower before every interview – both when I am interviewing and when I am being interviewed. I hope that by reading about my experiences, you will pick up a tip or two to become a better interviewer.
This blog post is an expanded version of 7 Tips on How to Conduct Great Interviews
Here are some lessons that I have learned along the way on how to interview!
Tips Conducting Interviews – Tell the interviewee what to expect:At the start of every interview, tell the interviewee what to expect so there are no surprises. When I conduct interviews for my blog, I take a couple of minutes to remind the interviewee that I will be recording the interview, and explain exactly what to expect during the interview. Recently, I was working on a project for a client, which involved conducting an interview, then crafting a story. Believe or not, the person is not comfortable with technology that most people take for granted, so Skype was not an option. She only has a cell phone, and lives in a country where it is expensive to call a cell phone. I decided the best option for both of us was to buy a prepaid phone card. For those who do not know, the number of minutes on these cards are often not the number of minutes that you actually get. At the start of the phone interview, I explained to the interviewee that I was using a phone card, and in the event that we got cut off, I would immediately call back. It’s good that I did that because the actual minutes I got from the card was half of what it was advertised for. This is the first time that I was in this situation because the people who I interview are usually very comfortable with technology, or have a land line.
Tips Conducting Interviews – Listen more and talk less: When I ask a question, I listen to what the interviewee is saying to me. During the interview, the interviewee is the most important person in my life. She has my undivided attention. I have always liked to listen more than I talk, but making someone feel as if she is the most important person in the world, I learned from Julia Conn Watt. Julia died from cancer of the adrenal in 2003, but every time I visited her, while I was talking, I felt special, like I was the most important person in her world, at that moment in time.
And it’s no small feat because Julia was a CEO of a technology company before she was diagnosed with cancer. One of the traits of great leaders is excellent listening skills. I record the interviews – I get permission before I do so – but I also take notes. And I also focus on what the interviewee is telling me so that I can ask follow-up questions if I need to. It’s very important to record interviews because they are a gold mine of quotes that have impact.
Tips Conducting Interviews – Ask the easy questions first: I am not someone who likes surprises, so I usually send interviewees the questions before the interview so they do not feel blindsided. I am not an investigative journalist, therefore there is no reason to put people on the spot. I have been interviewed several times without seeing the questions first because the interviewer wants my first reaction – they want me to be spontaneous. Despite that, I do not feel the need to return the favor to anyone. Surprisingly, although people get the opportunity to see the questions that I intend to ask them, many do not capitalize on the opportunity because they want to be spontaneous in their responses.
I like to give people options, and I find that my questions about the five books they would like to take on a desert island, three events that shape their lives, five people they would like to meet and a few more, take thought, and some of interviewees appreciate that. Seeing the questions first, helps some interviewees to be more relaxed during the interview. You want to make the interviewee feel comfortable, so ask questions that help to build rapport, and those that are easy to answer. Good first questions are “Tell me about yourself” or “Describe a typical day for you.” My disposition while interviewing people seems to make them comfortable because they trust me, and I have been told that I have a calming effect on others.
Tips Conducting Interviews – Ask the right questions: It can be very frustrating when you are not getting the information that you need during the interview. So prior to the interview, think about the kind of information that you are gathering and which questions will get you what you need.
Tips Conducting Interviews – Be clear and direct: Ask direct questions, and if the interviewee doesn’t want to answer, move on. Because I usually send the questions before the interview, I’ll know in advance if there are questions that the interviewee doesn’t feel comfortable answering. They tell me and I work with them. Many times they also give me reasons why they do not want to answer. Recently, I conducted an interview for a client to later craft into stories for the organization’s website. The time to work on the project was short, so I didn’t have time to send the questions in advance. While conducting the interview, I asked the interviewee a question, which she responded to, but she also indicated that she didn’t want her response in the story. She gave me the reason, and it was very legitimate, so I left out the information.
Tips Conducting Interviews – Ask for clarification: There are many times in an interview when an interviewee will say something that you do not understand. Instead of trying to figure out what the person means, ask for clarification because oftentimes that’s when you get the most important nuggets – the rare moments of brilliance. For instance, “You mentioned X, could you please explain to me what you meant by that?” Or, “I have never heard that before, can you give me an example?” Or, “I am intrigued by what you said about X, tell me more!”
Tips Conducting Interviews – Ask follow-up questions: Over the years, there have been many times during an interview where I had to ask follow-up questions. In some cases, I did not get enough information so I had to probe more, or the interviewee misinterpreted what I was asking, or she touched on something interesting in her response and I wanted to learn more. The key is to listen and pay attention to what she is saying to you. Additionally, not everyone makes a great interviewee, and there are times, when the experience is like pulling teeth.
Relax, take a deep breath, and ask more questions, until you get what you need from the interview. The interviewee could also be nervous. I was a lousy interviewee because I am a very private person so I would hold onto information for dear life, and give just enough information, which was unhelpful. I read about people like me, so I changed my errant ways, and it made me a better interviewee and interviewer. Recently, I was interviewed, and I answered the questions, but there were times when it made sense to give examples or additional information, and the interviewer was very grateful. This is a good tip for employment interviews.
Tips Conducting Interviews – Speak slower: I mentioned this in my introduction. Most people speak too quickly, and you miss a lot of what they are saying to you. I have trained myself to speak slower when I am conducting an interview. This is even more important because I have a Jamaican accent, and on top of that, it is no longer “pure” because I have lived in Calgary, New York and now Toronto, which have influenced the way I sound to others.
Last year, while I was taking courses for an informal liberal arts education, there were times when it was very difficult to keep up with my note taking because the instructor was speaking so quickly, and it brought home to me how quickly people speak, even in everyday situations. I constantly had to stop the video to play catch-up, which lengthens the process. Since then, I have learned some techniques for better note-taking, and this is also a great tip for interviewers. You can’t always get your interviewees to speak slower, but you can speed up the rate at which you write your notes.
Tips Conducting Interviews – Don’t rely solely on technology: Technology fails, so always have a back-up plan or two. Once I was conducting an interview for a client, and I tested everything before the interview, and things worked just fine. After the interview, when I was downloading the recording, it hadn’t worked – and there was no recording – even though it worked fine during the test. At that time, I relied solely on recording the interview, so my only focus was on listening to the responses. I had to go back to the interviewee, explain what happened, and conducted the interview a second time. Even though the interviewee was happy to comply, that’s not the ideal situation.
In another instance, I conducted the interview, it recorded fine, then I downloaded it, but didn’t realize that the download failed because I was distracted doing other things. Thirty days later, when I was ready to transcribe the interview, I realized the problem, and by that time, the service had deleted my recording, so I couldn’t access it again. That’s was a MAJOR FAIL on my part, and looking back, I screwed up several times through that process. I lost out because the person refused to allow me to interview him again. Now, I have a back-up plan for important interviews. Technology failure has happened to other interviewers who I know, and people were very unkind, calling them incompetent, and refusing to schedule a second interview. The most successful people know that to get to the top, the path is paved with some major mistakes along the way. Everyone fails, learn from your failure.
Tips Conducting Interviews – Say how long the interview will take: Prior to the interview, let the interviewee know how long the interview will last, and honor that time. I have conducted interviews, and the person took much longer answering the questions than the average interviewee. I do not like to cut people off in the middle of an answer, but what I will do is make a decision to drop some of the questions if I find that I’m running out of time. You can also give the person a time check to let her know where she is at in the interview. Because I ask every interviewee the same questions for The Invisible Mentor interviews, I know which questions I’m prepared to skip. Think about the questions that you are willing to omit if time doesn’t permit. If I am in a situation where I am conducting an interview for a client, if the interviewee’s responses are longer than anticipated and I run out of time, I will ask permission for more time, or schedule a second interview. Because I have been interviewing for so many years, I have only had to schedule additional interviews once to get everything that I needed. And that one time, it so happens that I was interviewing someone who is usually the interviewer. He wanted to make sure that I had very good information, so he was very detailed in his responses, much more than I have ever gotten from any other interviewee.
Conclusion: How to Interview – What I Learned after 20 Years of Interviewing People
To become an expert in any field requires a lot of practice, and even when others view you as an expert, be humble, because there is always more to learn. Many view me as an expert interviewer, but each day, I work to get better at my craft. I hope that you will find some key takeaways from my experiences. I hope that you found this guide on how to interview helpful.
Here is an interview I did with Andrew Warner, the founder of Mixergy. Andrew interviews successful entrepreneurs, and has successfully built a membership site around his interviews.
In another post, we will look at how to conduct an interview, and will further delve into how to ask questions. A book that comes highly recommended is Ask: The counterintuitive online formula to discover exactly what your customers want to buy…create a mass of raving fans…and take any business to the next level by Ryan Levesque.
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