10 interview tips that I learnt the hard way

I had a big interview this week (hence why I have been quiet on the blog front) so I started reading up on the notes I made years earlier about the art of interviewing.

At the end of 2008, I spent a year interviewing 100 hundred people around America. It was one of the most humbling and formative years of my life. I started off clueless. It was a crash course in the craft of interviewing and I learnt on the job. I know for sure that I started off terribly and got better (my apologies to my first few victims who sat across from me as I quizzed them Gestapo style and flicked through my reams of questions).

My year of interviews ended late in 2009 when I decided it was time to wrap up the research and start writing my book. Today it has been almost 2 years since my last formal interview.

Naturally I was vaguely petrified. My subject also happened to be one of the most famous journalists of our time. Things weren’t looking promising. So I decided to look over my notes and try to take some of my own advice. These were some of the interview tips that I came up with:

  1. A list of heavily researched questions might be a good framework but the best interviews are conversations. Largely one-sided conversations. People have stories that they want to tell. It is the interviewers job to get out of the way and let them tell it. Listening, really listening, matters more than anything else in getting a gutsy interview. Watch their bodies and their faces and their eyes. Listen for the inflection in their voice. Pay attention to what they are telling you not what you want to hear.
  2. Care about the people you’re interviewing. Take time with them, don’t hurry the process along. If they can see that you are genuinely curious about their thoughts they may open up to you. I spent 3 hours with Bill Withers. A lot of the interview was just chatting, getting to know each other. We giggled a lot.
  3. Let pauses linger. Silence can be uncomfortable but try to relax. Let the time expand and let them say everything they want to say.
  4. Looking stupid to them is worse than looking stupid to your reader. Lots of scientists I spoke to had to describe things to me as if I was a schoolchild. I have no doubt that they questioned my intelligence but I came away with a fuller understanding of the story than if I had feigned knowledge I didn’t have.
  5. Use lots of open-ended and follow-up questions: “What do you mean by that?”, “What makes you say that?”, “What happened next?”, “Can you give me an example?”
  6. Ask one question at a time. It is all too tempting to structure a multi-part question but don’t get complicated, don’t try and sound clever when you’re asking questions. Remember that it is the answers, not the questions, that matter. Keep it simple but not too simple. Don’t ask anything that could be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
  7. Think about the timing. Don’t jump in with your hardest hitting question. You haven’t built up the trust yet. Start broad and go specific. On the flip side, don’t leave your most important question to the end. You might run out of time.
  8. What’s the news? Listen out for something surprising or something they haven’t mentioned before.
  9. Don’t self censor. Just ask.
  10. This may be a personal bias but I’m not a fan of phone interviews. My clumsiness comes out (I hung up on Jack Welch and Skype ruthlessly disconnected Emily Blunt) and I find it difficult to read people. My best interviews have been in people’s homes. Maybe it is a trust thing. I interviewed Bill Walton in his sitting room recovering from surgery and it was one of my most honest and moving interviews.

I’m still learning. Any comments or ideas for you would be amazing to hear.

Luckily the interview went well. I was nervous as hell but my recorder worked like a charm and my poor victim was an awesome storyteller. Now I just have to write something vaguely cohesive. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

3 thoughts on “10 interview tips that I learnt the hard way

  1. I’m a journalism student and this is my first year writing for my college’s newspaper and I’ve come to the same conclusions on interviewing as you. I hate phone interviews with a passion because it’s so much harder to make sure I get every word the person said. I feel I can write a much better story when I’m talking to the person face to face. Also, it really does help to see someones reaction because it makes the story relatable and much more natural. I’m doing an informative speech on interviewing in my public speaking class and I’m using this article as a source. What a great read.

    • Kenneth – amazing to hear from you. I totally agree that it helps to see someone’s reaction and to get a feel for their body language etc in person. Where are you at college? So much good luck for your public speaking class!

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