I’ve been interviewing people for 30 years. Everyone from cops, tattoo artists, and city council reps to project managers and CEOs.
So I was curious when Dean Nelson, Ph.D., gave a presentation on interview tips at the San Diego Main Library in June 2019. The founder and director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University, Nelson also runs the annual Writer’s Symposium By The Sea, where he interviews famous authors.
A longtime journalist, he has covered human interest stories around the globe and written many books. His latest book, Talk to Me: How to Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers, and Interview Anyone Like a Pro, is all about the art of interviewing.
His talk reinforced my own best practices and offered some new insights as well. Whether you’re interviewing or preparing to be interviewed, I hope you find the following tips valuable.
These days, you might have to expend a considerable effort to secure the interview. You have to find a time agreeable to both you and the source, both the day and the time (and let’s not forget different time zones). There’s also the location: phone, Zoom, someone’s office, etc. Once you’ve nailed this down, you might breathe a sigh of relief.
That’s fine, but obviously, that’s just one aspect to the interview process.
Before I interview a new source, I read about the topic, get a feel for what’s going on in the industry he or she represents, and look up terms I don’t understand, especially when it’s a difficult subject matter. The more research I do, the less time I waste asking the source things that are already well documented.
I also review the source’s LinkedIn profile, go to their website if they have one, and review content they’ve posted, such as articles or videos. For example, for one source, I watched a video of a panel discussion on cloud migration in the federal government. The source had posted this video on his LinkedIn profile, and it proved quite valuable. It offered context and helped me speak his language.
As part of interview preparation, Nelson said he always writes his questions ahead of time and puts them in order. I do this, too, and I often send the questions to the source in advance. I want them to have time to prepare as well, especially since I ask for examples from the source’s experience to help explain fuzzy concepts.
Plan all you want. Sometimes, though, you have to wing it. In the course of the interview, something intriguing and highly relevant might come up.
It might occur as an off-hand comment. During a recent interview with a source about Agile and leadership, the source mentioned that it’s lonely at the top for CEOs. My next question, of course, was, “Why?” If I hadn’t asked that question, I would have missed out on a great little nugget.
Or I find out cool stuff when the source has to explain something in more detail and I need additional clarity to understand the concept. Say, for example, a source says that readiness reviews help NASA astronauts avoid potential hazards during a spacewalk. If I don’t know what those hazards are, I have to ask, “Why?” or “How?”
As the interviewer, you might get hung up on feeling dumb if you don’t understand something. But to be flexible, it’s wise to let that feeling go. Even though I’ve prepared as much as I can, I can’t anticipate everything. It just makes sense to just ask a question and see where it goes. You might learn something interesting.
I n the previous section, I mentioned the questions “Why?” and “How?” These will get the source to explain things in more detail. This is journalism 101, but it’s worth repeating.
I rarely ask questions that require yes or no answers, unless I’m confirming information, such as how the source spells her name or what her title is.
One thing Nelson has noticed over the last few years with his students is their fear of talking to someone face to face. Maybe it’s the rise of social media or texting. But to get good information from people, you need to talk to them in person, whether face to face or on the phone.
Don’t expect to get off-the-cuff comments via email. These types of responses are carefully crafted and rarely as good as a real-time conversation. The last time I got an email response to questions because the source didn’t have time to talk, I didn’t use it. Every answer was as dry as unbuttered toast. I found another source to fill in.
I know Zoom and other video calls have become popular. In my experience, they’re great for getting to know a client and establishing a long-term relationship. But after that, I prefer the phone, especially for one-off interviews. Besides, at that point, I’m typing. My job is to listen carefully and document what I hear, not continuously make eye contact.
Most of my interviews are 30 minutes or less. I’m working with busy sources who take valuable time out of their day to talk to me. If it’s a government contractor, they’re giving up customer billable hours to talk to me. Therefore, we have to maximize our time together.
That’s why I send the questions in advance, so they know how I’ve structured the discussion and what we need to cover. The marketing professional who sets up the interview has also prepped the source and explained the goal of the interview. We do everything we can to make sure this goes smoothly.
Still, the source is looking to me to guide the interview. It’s up to me to watch the clock, and I have to make sure I get the answers I need.
Almost all of my interviews take place on the phone with one or both of us on cell phones. Unlike land lines, where you can hear each other talk at the same time, cell phones require a different type of etiquette.
So when the source goes off on a tangent or gets off topic, it’s my job to bring them back. And I can’t use visual cues. However, there’s a guaranteed way to get someone’s attention: interrupt.
The only way for the source to hear me on a cell phone is when they’re not talking, which means they’re taking a breath or briefly pausing to think. So I have to say, “Excuse me. Can I interrupt for a sec?” a few times for it to register.
I’ve always wondered if this came across as rude, and I asked Nelson if there’s a polite way to interrupt on the phone. He reassured me that it’s not rude, that I was just controlling the interview, and to say something like this: “This is really fascinating, but I want to make sure we cover X and Y during our time today. If we have time to discuss Z later in the interview, let’s do that.”
TV and movies often present interviewers as super polished, confident, extroverted and all-knowing. The worst ones are self-absorbed and barely let the source get a word in edgewise, as if the interviewer were more important than the source (think Larry King).
This might give you the impression that there’s no place for the quiet introvert or the socially awkward person in the world of interviewing. Not so, Nelson said. We don’t necessarily have to fashion ourselves according to our favorite sports reporter or seasoned news journalist.
Instead, just be yourself. For example, I can’t turn myself into a garrulous, overly chummy ray of sunshine. For those people who are actually like that, more power to you. But for me, it would come across as false. I’m friendly, but I’m also serious and I get down to business. And I make no apologies for that.
This doesn’t mean we can’t improve our interviewing skills or stifle irritating habits. I have a tendency to laugh during interviews. Yes, it’s usually when the source says something funny, but sometimes it’s something I personally find amusing, like if a source uses a swear word. I suppose it’s also a nervous habit. I could work to tone it down, but I live with it. As long as I’m not laughing at the wrong time, it’s not that terrible.
So embrace your authentic self. Be who you are, as long as you’re also prepared and professional. All three go together.
I’d love to hear about your project. Feel free to contact me.