I don’t consider myself an expert interviewer. I’m more of a novice or a plebe or an amateur, really. But over the past four years I’ve had the chance to interview several dozen people for various articles or podcasts. I realized early on that the really good interviewers make it look easy, but looks are deceiving. So much more goes into a good interview than you can guess from reading a published story or listening/watching a finished production. Here are nine things I’ve learned about interviewing someone well.
Interviewing is a simple concept: ask questions, record answers. But that’s not an interview; it’s a verbal questionnaire. And it’s boring for all involved. A good interview discovers things, is insightful, is engaged, and is surprising for both sides. That doesn’t just happen. It takes the right mindset, good questions, and all the steps I list below. Trust me. I learned the awkwardly difficult way.
Do your homework. Find out the basics, and ideally something beyond just the basics. An interviewee will be impressed and more ready to engage if you skip the perfunctory details and get to the good stuff. It’s good to confirm those details, but in doing so you are showing that you came ready. And being ready shows that you respect that person and take this interview seriously.
I like to wing it, just jump into things and try stuff. This can work in interviews, but only if the person being interviewed feels the same way. Most people don’t. It also doesn’t work if a distraction or interruption arises because your train of thought goes off the rails and crashes spectacularly. So come with a list of questions. Have a format. Have a flow in mind. These don’t need to be legalistically held to, but they are invaluable prompts and conversation accelerants.
Asking a question you don’t want an answer to is stupid. Asking a question in the hopes of setting yourself up to talk is selfish. Ask questions in order to hear the answer and absorb it. Follow up with further, more focused questions based on the answer. And interview in which you are genuinely curious about the subject is a good interview. It breathes life into it because you will dig a little deeper and listen a little closer. The interviewee will feel this engagement and likely respond better, with more thoughtful and forthcoming answers. In the end, you will be more satisfied, they will feel respected, and the content will be richer. If you’re in a position where you are conducting a large number of interviews this will keep you engaged too.
The interviewer is a catalyst for good content, not the star of the show. The one answering the questions is the star. Their answers are the content, not your responses to their answers. Ask questions that nudge them into the spotlight and pull out their most interesting or notable ideas or experiences. Then let those experiences shine on their own without your commentary.
Structure is your friend, like I said. But sometimes the unexpected happens when the subject says something fascinating or surprising. That’s great! Chase it down. Dig into it. Set aside your list of questions until you’ve wrung out the interesting stuff. Then you always have your structure to revert to regain flow. What you will end up with is a story with much more flavor because you were listening closely, heard something interesting, and went with it.
Usually a theme or emphasis becomes fairly clear as you interview. You will get pages (or Megabytes) of material, but throughout you will find a thread. That is your story. That is what you are looking for. That is what needs to shine. All the other cool anecdotes, fascinating as they may be, should not make the final cut. If you find this thread early in an interview ask questions with it in mind, seeing if you can follow it and expose it more clearly. That way you will have more to work with when you are finished.
When you are done with an interview and are making into the finished product – article, book, podcast, video – use your editorial carving knife aggressively. Editing doesn’t mean changing content. It means removing the content that is off-point. It means all those interesting anecdotes and needless details get chopped so that just the main point is left. It means you don’t include every good one-liner, only the ones that make the point or tell the story that needs telling. A tight, clear, final product will be better because of all the material left in the wastebasket.
This part is awful, but it will make you better. You need to go back later and review your work. Over time you’ll find redundancies, bad habits, and consistent gaps in your questions. You’ll see where you talked too much and listened to little or where you let a question lie instead of pressing it and rephrasing until you get the answer you needed. You will not enjoy this process one bit, but the more you do it the more future interviewees will benefit and the better your finished products will become.