Posted On: November 16, 2015
I’ve been binge listening to Sarah Koenig riveting podcast “Serial” (yes, I know I am behind on the podcast times) and it’s got my wheels turning about interview tactics.
Sarah is a phenomenal interviewer. She has a subtle way of making everyone she speaks to feel like a buddy, like she’s on your side, even when she’s asking very tough questions. In many instances, she gets her subjects to open up more than they did being interviewed by lawyers or detectives trying to unravel the case. Information that could potentially change the outcome of the verdict (don’t spoil it for me, I’ve got two episodes left!).
So how the hell does she do it? And this is something that is integral to my day to day. Granted here at Q Media we’re not solving old murder cases, but we are trying to piece together a story or uncover an emotional side of something that’s not always at the forefront.
I’ve been very lucky to learn from the experts that surrounded me. My dad, Laine Drewery is a fantastic (yes, I’m biased) documentary producer and my superhero mum, Nancy Wilson spent several decades as an on-air journalist (from Canada AM to CBC mornings) interviewing heavy hitters like Gorbachev and Leonard Cohen. I’ve got some pretty great brains to pick at home. And Q Media senior partners Richard and Dorothy have had extensive experience interviewing everyone from financial greats to the Liberal Leader himself.
So here’s what I’ve learned so far, and don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a lot more learning to do:
From my Mum
Throughout her career, my mum has interviewed a lot of people who have been interviewed before. The key to getting genuine responses from people is to ask questions that feel fresh to them. Find interesting tidbits about the person you are speaking to and capitalize on them. Watch or read other interviews with them if you can and think about what has never been asked about.
The “how does it feel” question is so often asked by journalists and my mum has taught me to cringe every time I hear it. Think about how hard it can be to articulate your overall feelings surrounding an event. In a well communicated sound bite. Not going to happen. It’s the perfect question to ask if you want a cookie cutter, rehearsed answer. So go at it from a different angle. Let’s say your speaking to a Canadian Olympic Athlete who just won gold in their sport. Instead of asking “How does it feel to win gold?” ask them something that triggers seeing that emotion on-camera…something along the lines of “Knowing all the work that went into this moment, are you relieved? Surprised?” or “Who helped you arrive at this moment? Your coach? Your family?” Don’t have them articulate the emotion they are feeling, simply ask a question that will show audiences the emotion they are feeling.
From my Dad
Who are you interviewing? What would they consider to be respectful? A few years ago my dad interviewed one of his heroes, Chuck Yeager. In preparation, he thought to himself, well, Chuck’s an army man, so I should be clean cut, clean-shaven and well dressed. Doing this little extra research into your profilee’s world might earn you some additional respect before you even start the interview.
Both my mum and my dad are genuinely interested in people. I’ve had life-long friends over to dinner with either parent and suddenly I’m hearing stories about my friend I’ve never heard before. My parents are constantly seeking to learn more about people. When interviewing, do the same thing. What about this profilee genuinely interests you personally? Ask them a couple of questions that are totally outside the box or outside your structured interview and you might just get some golden responses.
From my Bosses
At Q, we are often interviewing CEOs, Founders and Sector Heads. And their team always wants them to be completely prepared ahead of time – which always leads to the “can we have the interview questions in advance?” request. Never do this. In the end, it often makes your profilee more nervous and their answers sound rehearsed and stiff. Instead, provide them with a list of topics and themes that you are going to discuss. If necessary, prepare two throw away questions off the top that will allow for the rehearsed answers to come out and then you can get to the real meat of the interview. In the end, a more off the cuff interview acts as much better messaging for internal communications anyway. It makes your profilee sound relatable.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a talker. So this is one I constantly have to remind myself of. You can’t use a clip where you’re babbling all over the top or tail of an interview sound bite. So once they open their mouths, shut yours. Even if it means sitting and staring for an awkward 5 seconds after they’ve finished their response. Sometimes, that silence triggers them to sum up their response – making a perfect sound bite.
We interview a lot of people who have never been on-camera before. And when your profilee is nervous, their answers might sound strained, rehearsed or disjointed. So get them comfortable before you even start. Introduce your team. See if they have any questions. Chat a little about some of the questions you want to discuss. If you chat prior to when the camera turns on, it will help make your profilee feel as though the experience is just a conversation between the two of you, not a formal interview. Monitor your profilee during the interview. Do they need a water break? Can you remove anyone from set so there is a smaller audience? Make jokes or small talk in-between questions. They may be nervous off the top, so remember to re-ask those first few questions closer to the end of the interview. Give lots of positive feedback before asking your next question.
From Others / My Own Experience
This is my own trick from the field. I used to be INSANELY nervous before interviews. But sometimes you can use that nervous energy to your advantage. The natural human instinct is to help someone finish their thought if they are struggling to find the words. And sometimes, you have a theme or a big picture idea you need your profilee to speak about, but it is difficult to frame into a question. I found, during those first sweaty palmed interviews, that profilees would actually help me finish those thematic questions by jumping in and framing the idea themselves. Now that I’ve gotten into the groove, that nervous energy is gone, but I still tap into it sometimes to get a profilee to say what I need them to.
So much of getting a good response, or getting what you need, relies on you, the interviewer. Everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone is going to be a perfect interview. It’s your job to pull out that story. So, I work backwards when I write my questions. What is my story? What parts of it do I need my profilee to tell? Once I nail down the content I need, I begin to write two or three questions aimed to pull out that specific piece of content, piece-by-piece. Although you may go off book, or you may find during your interview some questions you wrote are irrelevant, your questions will act as the backbone to structure your interview and pull out the story you need.
From the onset, monitor your interviewee’s mood and personality. Are they high energy? Low key? Aggressive and to the point? Mimicking their attitude will help them get comfortable. Then you need to reflect on what’s missing and adapt that to your style. Energy is a big one and luckily, its contagious. If you bring energy to set, it helps brings everyone up. It’s one of the reasons doing an interview can, and should, be so exhausting. If you’re enthusiastic in your questions, your profilee will naturally respond similarly. Sometimes a profilee who already has high energy can sound nervous in an interview, so you need to mimic their energy, but then start taking some breaths in-between questions. Start to slow your interview pace and your profilee will naturally do the same.
These are just tactics that have helped me. Everyone develops their own style and their own tricks. My advice? Bring energy, genuine curiosity, do your homework and you’re sure to get something great.
So what are your tactics? Tell us all your secrets in the comments below.