At Idea Grove, we conduct interviews – a lot of them. Interviews are how we gather our client’s ideas and turn them into everything from whitepapers and ebooks to news releases and blog posts. We’ve learned what makes for a good interview; and we’ve realized that the rules of good interviewing apply to almost any workplace interaction in which one person needs to get information from another.
Good information depends on a good interview. Here are 10 lessons we’ve learned that will help interviewers get the information they need:
1. Shun the conference call.
It’s almost reflexive these days to set a conference call when anything of importance is to be discussed. Don’t fall for that. The best way to get information is one on one. The subject is focused on you and not correcting, impressing or deferring to anyone else.
In-person interviews are most always more productive than those conducted by phone. You never know on the phone how much attention from the subject you’re getting and how much a boss’ email or Facebook is getting.
2. Be prepared as a Boy Scout.
Got something your subject sent you in preparation for your interview? Don’t count on your ability to fish it out of your Inbox. Print it out and have it with you. Even better, prepare an agenda or list of questions and share it with the subject beforehand. If you do that, print out two copies.
And be early. Interviews can get sideways fast when you come racing in huffing and puffing or show up late to a conference call because the access code didn’t work. Interviews need to be controlled, and you can’t that gain control if you’re not there.
3. Record, record, record.
This is huge. Record the interview. A lot of us here use an app called iTalk. You press a big red button on your smartphone to start and the same big red button to stop. With the phone on Do Not Disturb the recording won’t get interrupted, but it pays to glance down at the phone every few minutes to confirm it’s recording.
The recording can be moved from your phone to your computer for review or transcription. We’re big believers in transcriptions. They give everyone a clear record of what was said and not said. Online services can deliver transcriptions quickly and relatively inexpensively.
4. Keep the pleasantries short.
I like to start by thanking the subject for their time and plunging right in. If you must discuss the weather, the kids or the weekend’s football upsets, do so quickly. Your subject is on the clock and so are you.
5. State the goal.
This seems obvious, but so many people accept meetings without thinking for a second about what may be expected of them. Now is your chance to “remind” them.
“We’ve been asked to create an ebook on the problem our new product solves. This interview will be the basis for creating that document.” The simpler the goal the better.
6. Define the audience and speak to it.
If the information you’re gathering is to be passed along to someone else, it’s vital to state exactly who that audience is and make sure the subject speaks to that audience. All too often, subjects “dumb down” topics for the benefit of the interviewer then are disappointed that the interviewer doesn’t suddenly understand the topic at a higher level.
I once ghostwrote a trade magazine article about the relative performance of base oil refineries in Russia. I made sure to have the subject speak directly to the refinery managers who would be reading the article. Near the end, he said, “I just realized that you don’t even know the difference between conventional plants and microprocessors!” I told him, “That’s right; and if I do my job right, I won’t have to know.” He liked the article.
7. Ask the first question.
It seems polite after explaining the goal and defining the audience to let the subject talk. Don’t do it. You would be handing over control of the conversation and you may never get it back. Instead, ask the first question and make it specific. Specific questions are more likely to elicit specific responses.
8. Don’t let people filibuster.
We’ve all watched that painful television interview in which some windbag goes on and on about something inane to fill time so he or she won’t be asked a question they don’t want to answer. That’s fine – understandable anyway – on TV, where the goal is to fill time. We need to fill pages, and with content our prospects want to read. We can’t let subjects drone on and on, especially when they start selling a product we all believe in already.
And watch the clock. If you have six questions to ask in 30 minutes, the math is pretty simple. When you have the information you need on a particular question, move the subject along to the next one.
9. Ask what wasn’t asked.
Like concert-goers who just want to hear that one song, many interview subjects have that one point they are just dying to make. As you wind down the meeting, ask him or her what that is. “What else did you want to make sure we covered today?” is more than a pleasantry. It’s a way to tell your subject you’re interested in what they have to say.
10. Plan the follow-up.
Action items, level setting, whatever you want to call it, but now is the time to explain next steps and expected timetables. It’s another way to confirm the value of the interview and another way to hold onto control.
That’s all I have for today. Thank you again for your time; and I look forward to working with you on our next blog post.