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10 steps to great interviewing

Every journalist develops good interviewing skills--or goes out of business. But most work on a trial and error basis and build an individual M.O. over time. I’ve rarely met a public relations professional who consciously built the skill, even though they are essential to generating good press releases, product information, articles and presentations.

If you’re in business and act as your own PR rep, smart interviewing helps you carry out all these functions and more. The techniques enable you to better interface with technology suppliers, collaborate with or hire specialists in diverse fields, and explain why a complex product is of value, for example. A systematic approach helps you gain useful information from experts ranging from management consultants to insurance providers, architects and microbiologists.

You are also equipped to handle personal situations more effectively. When you deal with medical personnel, for example, if you know what questions to ask and are ready to understand the answers, you’ll get much better information and can make better decisions. Focusing on strategy has a side-benefit--it enables you to bypass any emotional aspects.

For years a major part of my work as both a journalist and PR professional has involved interviewing highly technical people and translating that information into copy that engages non-technical readers. It isn’t easy to draw good ideas and information from a thermonuclear scientist, electrochemical engineer, or computational motor control researcher--even the job titles are hard to understand!

Over time I evolved a system that works well and applies to many situations that might otherwise create an “in over my head” feeling. Here is that system in 10 steps.

Before the interview or conversation:

1. Do some homework: Ask your subject for materials to read, no matter how academic or complex, and scan them. Or find material on the Internet. Look for the specialization’s natural key words and phrases and Google them. Often Wikipedia provides a reasonable definition or brief explanation but if not, or dig further. You need not try to understand difficult concepts at this point--just familiarize yourself with the language so you can be an intelligent listener.

2. Come up with good questions, framed by what you’ve read and what you want or need to know. Make them open-ended, not answerable with a yes or no. Amazingly, a good set of questions can apply to myriad scenarios. Some of my favorites:
• Can you give me an example of that?
• What’s most important to understand about this?
• Why is it important? Interesting?
• What problem or challenge does it solve?
• How did you figure it out? How do you know that?
• What surprised you?
• How will you know you’ve succeeded?
• What will change if (the problem is solved, product produced, people understand more, etc.)?
• What should I (or people in general) understand better?
• What do you believe will happen next? Or what are the next steps?
• How do you see the future as it relates to X?

Adapt such questions to the context. Also brainstorm for sharp targeted “custom” questions particular to the subject, your needs, and the individual’s know-how. Keep in mind: Most specialists love to expound on their subject to an interested audience and enjoy questions that make them stop and think.

3. Shuffle your questions into a logical, natural order so that one more or less leads to the next. Take the timeframe into account. If it’s short, key in on your most critical questions. I once interviewed Hillary Clinton for an article on a local issue she was known to support. I realized she would give me about 45 seconds of her time, in transit between appointments, fairly typical for interviewing a major persona. It took me hours to fix on three questions most likely to elicit interesting responses for quotes. (She came through perfectly on the first two, and to the last, said “I don’t know the answer to that.” Which was a good response that lent credibility to the other answers.)

I like to put the final list of questions on my computer so I can see them on the screen while I type the answers on a separate document on the right.

When interview times comes:

4. Take a minute to establish a trustful comfortable atmosphere. Whether face to face or by phone or other system it’s good to explain the parameters of your interest--for example, that you plan to focus on how Product Y was created (so he doesn’t have to worry you’ll ask about the current IRS audit of company books). Or state that you’re only interested in a specific aspect of the person’ work.

If you can offer to let her review what you write before publication--to correct errors, not rewrite--say so. Such a review might be beneficial. A reporter would never allow this, but might offer the opportunity to review and approve direct quotes. If someone seems nervous, I sometimes assure her that she can withdraw any statement at the session’s end if she wishes it un-said. This helps people relax and share more--and I can’t recall a single instance when someone took me up on the promise.

Face-to-face interviews require a more personal interaction than electronic ones. It’s fine and often necessary to share carefully limited information about yourself to set a good tone. Aim to maintain some eye contact. Recording the exchange may work better in these situations, so you’re not focused on your screen or notepad.

5. Begin by explaining what you want to know and why--what you’ll do with the information, as appropriate. For example, “I’ll write a newsletter article about X which will be read by …” Or, I’ll use it to prepare sales literature, or user instructions, or a contract, or make a decision. Then pause--a long pause if necessary--to see what the person comes up with himself as interesting and/or relevant to your purpose. This avoids limiting the information flow to your own understanding. The result may be quite different than you anticipated, and better. Or try priming the pump to draw out the person’s big-picture viewpoint with questions like, “What do you think I should know? What’s most important for us to talk about?”

6. If a conversation develops follow it! Provided it’s relevant to what you need. A good interview or fact-finding mission succeeds best as a conversation. Be an active and enthusiastic listener, mindful that unless you’re face-to-face or using a visual communication system, the person can’t see your expression or gestures. Use strong cues: Ah ha! Oh? Really? Hmmm! When an answer ends, draw on your good questions to move the exchange along and keep it on target. Notice that having the questions in hand frees you from having to think on your feet and come up with them on the spot. Instead you can listen closely and keep the conversational flow going, and also think of even better questions to ask based on what is actually said.

7. Try not to interrupt the specialist unless he’s going off on what you’re sure is an irrelevant tangent. You draw the best information from anyone when they follow their own enthusiasm and feel interested in the interaction, rather than lecturing a novice who asks basic boring questions and distracts them from the point they’re making. Here’s where your homework pays off again. You can give reasonably intelligent responses and pose questions that are a bit challenging, which most specialists like a lot. Plus brushing up on the keywords ahead of time means you don’t have to ask someone to spell a word, or repeat it, or define it, which reminds your conversational partner that you’re a rank amateur in her field.

8. But ask for clarification as necessary--do it like this: Can you explain that another way? Do you have an example? What do you mean by that? I hear you saying X--do I understand it correctly? Or be direct: Can you clarify that? Almost always, though, you can safely wait. I find that 90% of the time, my interviewee soon repeats the same point on his own, using different language, so you catch up on what was originally said or can backtrack and fill in the blanks later.

9. When the conversation starts to wind down, scan your question list to see if anything important remains uncovered or you still don’t understand something that matters. Just ask the omitted question or say something like, “Can we go back to XX so I’m sure I have it right….”

10. If you’re interested in drawing a personal response from the other person--e.g., how they feel about the subject or see it personally, rather than just the cold plain facts--try a question or two at the end of the exchange to elicit this:
“How does it feel to have accomplished X?”
“What is especially satisfying about X?”
"What surprised you?"
“What is your vision of the future?”
“Where will you go from here?”
“What do you wish I had asked you?”
“What do you want people to know or understand better?”

Investigative reporters save their bombshell questions for last, which makes perfect sense. At worst an angry person may throw you out, and at the least, you lose trust and kill the positive feeling that good conversations demand. Needless to say, don’t use the bombshell tactic on someone you work for, a client, or someone whose ill will won’t do you any good.

About note-taking: unless you trust your memory, choose one of the many options available today. You can record a conversation (with permission), using a digital microphone, an app, Skype or telephone service. Or you can type very fast--which I prefer to do because otherwise you may have to transcribe the audio to make the material accessible. I type as fast as I can and then immediately after closing, go back over the notes to correct important omissions and typing mistakes while the person’s voice is fresh in my mind.

If you go the typing route, make sure not only to save your notes carefully, but also print them out. I once interviewed ten architects for a roundup article and then, my hard drive crashed. I hadn’t printed out all the interviews, and especially because all the people shared the same subject matter, I couldn’t reconstruct who had said what. I was forced to explain what happened and ask some of the architects for more interview time. Not all were gracious about it.

Nowadays I save to my backup system, save to DropBox…and print it out, each and every word.

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