I’ve done a ton of interviews…
Both as the giver and receiver, the interviewer and the interviewee.
The interviews have been designed to create content. They’ve been designed to simply gather information, such as when gathering information from a client for a copywriting project. And I’ve even done a few job interviews in my time (from both sides).
I’ve been told I’m a great interviewer.
In fact, Brian Kurtz once said an interview I did with him years ago was one of the best interviews he’s ever done. I’m convinced that was one of the deciding factors that led me to writing the copy for The Titans of Direct Response.
But here’s something you should know…
I don’t have natural talent in situations like that…
For me to come out and say I’m a great interviewer, you might assume I’m naturally extroverted, or a people person. That I’m a born performer, perhaps.
I don’t think any of that is true.
When I was in the school talent show in first grade, I couldn’t even read my lines to our little play out of the book I was holding in my hands, I was so nervous.
I put an ad in the school newspaper to get a date to my senior prom, because I was too nervous to ask anyone.
I’m still awkward in new social situations, and have to force myself to start conversations with strangers.
I’ve done a TON over the years to try to alleviate this social awkwardness.
In college, after a couple semesters of disengagement (and a strong urging from my grandfather) I forced myself to sit in the front row of classes, and ask questions.
I once joined Toastmasters to try to improve my public speaking (though quickly grew bored with its uptight formality).
I’ve recently started doing improv acting.
I’m frequently forcing myself out of my comfort zone, knowing that the more I do it, the wider my comfort zone gets, and the more “natural” I can seem in situations such as doing interviews (in any context).
That’s probably the first big lesson when it comes to doing interviews well…
Just keep forcing yourself out of your comfort zone when it comes to social situations and interacting with people. Because the more you do that, the better off you’ll be in EVERY social situation including interviews.
With that said, let’s get into some more tactical aspects of doing better interviews.
Know what you want to know…
When I’ve conducted interviews before, it’s clear there’s a big gap in preparation between me and most others who’ve interviewed my subjects.
One of the most powerful things you can do to ensure a great interview is to show up more prepared than you need to be.
If your interview will be for an hour, be ready to do three hours. If your interview is for 20 minutes, be ready for an hour or more.
Over-preparing means you’ll have a ton of material to draw from. You’ll have more questions you can ask. You’ll find some better questions, and be able to ditch the lamer ones.
You’ll probably have to dig deeper into the bio of your subject, too. This is critical. The more background and current information you have about your subject, the better. You should know what they’re known for, and what they’re positioned as. You should have highlights of their career or life. You should know what they’re working on now.
You don’t wait until the interview to gather this background. You want to make sure you have all of this as known beforehand, so you can start your conversation PAST all of this, in the interesting parts, and only reference all this background in relation to more compelling subject matter.
So — do your homework. Know their background. Know what questions you want to ask. Know what information you want to get from them, and where the interview is headed. Also, if you’re doing an interview that will involve some kind of product pitch or resource recommendation at the end, make sure you have all the information you need for that gathered and understood ahead of time, so you can be congruent with their presentation.
And then, forget everything!
Ditch the script…
Okay, so you shouldn’t ditch the script or your list of questions entirely.
But this is where so many interviews go wrong.
The interviewer has a list of questions. Their only objective is to get through those questions. And so they are practically staring at the list of questions for the entire interview, just looking for every opportunity to inject the next question.
The script or list of questions is a great resource to have on your desk or computer monitor during the interview.
But you shouldn’t be giving it more attention than the occasional glance during the interview itself.
Instead, put your attention on the interviewee.
(Side note: Record your interviews, if at all possible. This takes the pressure off you to take notes on everything — although you can still make quick important notes. Plus it makes it so much easier to stay in the moment because you can always come back to the recording later.)
If I’m doing a phone interview, I like to get up and walk around. I leave the list of questions somewhere accessible, and wander a little bit. The wandering occupies my body, so my mind can focus on the interview itself.
This isn’t so easy if you’re doing an in-person or video interview (such as through Skype or Zoom) but in this case you have the advantage of being able to look at your interviewee. Make eye contact. Pay attention to them and their gestures.
Treat it like a CONVERSATION led by your questions, and you’ll find an immediate improvement.
In line with this…
Shut up and listen…
Most good interviews play like a conversation. There’s back and forth. Both interviewer and interviewee are adding points, discussing, and sharing.
But ultimately, your role is to let the interviewee be the star. To shine the spotlight on them. To make them the feature.
Which means you have to shut up.
Zip your lips.
Resist the urge for constant interjection.
And just listen.
If there’s something you really want to talk about that comes out of what they’re saying, make a quick note. Just a word or three — enough to jog your memory a minute later. Then, when there’s a natural pause, bring that back up. Dig deeper there. And shut up while they riff.
These are often the best moments of an interview. Because they come out of a moment where it was clear that you were truly listening and present, and they feel heard, so they’re willing to speak more.
(Side note: This can ONLY happen when you’re willing to go off-script, which is part of why the second recommendation was to ditch the script.)
Being curious will benefit you on two levels.
First, you’ll listen better.
If you’re truly curious about the other person’s perspective, you’ll be happy to let them take center stage. You’ll want to hear more. You’ll want to hear their stories. You’ll want to learn their lessons. You’ll want to get as much out of them as possible.
Being curious does an interesting thing to the part of yourself that wants to be the star. It quiets it. Have you ever had a moment where you hear a sound in the distance and you’re trying to figure out what it is? You’re curious. So you grow very quiet, and listen well. That’s what curiosity does, even in an interview — where your goal is to figure out the interviewee.
And so while you’ll absolutely have to ask questions and occasionally interject, you’ll be prone to make those interjections quicker and to pass the mic back to your subject faster.
Second, you’ll have a better conversation.
Because you’re listening with curiosity, you’ll truly be paying attention to what your interviewee is saying.
Your preparation before the interview won’t go to waste. Rather, it will get new depth and dimension as you’re able to adapt those questions to the dynamic conversation that’s taking place.
This creates a feedback loop. It adds texture, depth, and dimension to the conversation. It makes it flow naturally.
Don’t fear the reaper…
But what the heck do I mean?
In short — don’t be afraid to screw up. Don’t be afraid to be embarrassed, or awkward. Don’t be afraid to fail.
I know, it’s easier said than done.
But the worst thing that’s going to happen is that you’re going to screw up, be embarrassed, feel awkward, or fail.
You ain’t gonna die.
You may have to apologize. You may have to pick yourself back up after stumbling. You may feel a little hesitant to show your face again.
But, it will be okay. Life will move on.
And occasionally, our biggest mistakes are hilarious, with some perspective.
Sure, in the moment, they’re embarrassing. But usually YOU are the only one who’s really embarrassed.
For the most part, people who see you put yourself out there and stumble will be forgiving, and have compassion.
They’ll help you up when you stumble. And if you can make light of it, they will, too.
One parting thought…
Again, these are powerful principles, strategies, techniques, and tactics to help you conduct better interviews. (They each have corollaries in being interviewed, too.)
They work for recorded interviews for publication, for interviewing for gathering information for writing projects, and even for interviewing job candidates.
Now, here’s why you should master these techniques…
I once heard of a study where people were asked to watch a well-conducted interview, then make an estimate as to each participant’s intelligence.
Here’s what they found. People actually assumed that a good INTERVIEWER was SMARTER than the interviewee, even if it was the interviewee who was giving all the content.
Obviously this doesn’t apply in all situations. If you’re a horrible interviewer, you won’t automatically take on an air of intelligence. But if you’re good at doing interviews, it can have surprising effects (such as landing the project for The Titans of Direct Response).
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
PS: Here’s a few more suggestions. Don’t ask the expected questions. Push your interviewee outside of their comfort zone — carefully and respectfully — including into any personal topics they’re open to explore. Be willing to ask the really dumb questions, too — it’s easier when you phrase it, “This may be a really dumb or obvious question, but…”