The art of the interview

photo-1In my line of work, the interview is the key to obtaining good information for writing content for trade magazine article, blogs, web sites, white papers, you name it. Over the years I’ve conducted thousands of interviews in a wide range of industries. I’m often asked what makes for a good result. Sometimes the person asking is looking to hire an interviewer himself or herself. At other times the individual wants to make sure that interview time will be productive. With that in mind, here are some of my “art of the interview” trade secrets.

Always ask open ended questions – In other words almost never ask a question that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Instead of asking “What year did you start working here?” ask “describe the your years here at the company, the various ups and downs you have gone through and your immediate and long-term goals for future achievements in this line of work.”

Your interviewee isn’t going to like this, because he will need to flush out of his brain everything he is currently working on and reload it with information relevant to your question. However most people will cooperate and start giving you the details you want to hear.

Let one thing lead to another: When something interesting comes up ask another question that takes your subject further down that path. “You said you had a difficult time readjusting to the new business realities after the fire. Tell me about the fire, how did it happen, how were you involved that day and what did you and you co-workers have to do to get back on-stream afterwards?” (Notice this is another open ended question.)

Record your interview: Listening is an active sport. It takes a lot of attention to make sure you understand what the subject is telling you and coming up with questions that will keep him or her actively engaged in the process. If you try to take detailed notes, it is unlikely that you will conduct a good interview or capture all the good things the subject is telling you.

Squeeze it Dry: Sometimes the best information will come out when the interview is almost over. When you thought you’ve heard every good thing the subject has to say, he or she will pop up with a “By the way,” comment that will become a major topic of your article. I always ask one last question, something like “If I was a better interviewer, what would I have asked you that I didn’t today?” Sometime this answer will surprise you.

Follow up – After the interview I like to follow up with a note of thanks to the interviewee sometimes with a copy to his or her supervisor.  Use the follow-up to keep him engaged in the article writing process. Ask him to send additional information, such as articles and PowerPoints and photographs. Let him know that it may be a number of days or weeks before the article is completed but in the meantime you may contact him briefly to clarify points you didn’t completely understand. Keep him engaged in the process because you will want his full attention one more time when it is time for him to review what you have written.

Those are some of my trade secrets. Please feel free to use them as you please. Interviewing is like dancing or any other art form, if you have a little talent you will get a lot better with practice. If you have other things that are more important to you than learning how to extract good information from knowledgeable people, then you might also consider hiring a professional.

Good luck either way. And if you’d like to talk about your situation, email Ross Hudson


About joelcassola

Joel Cassola is a commercial journalist who has written feature articles and case histories for clients in more than 100 trade magazines.
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