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Great Interview Tips

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: Great Interview Tips

One of the most interesting parts of my work involves talking to people about what they do. I always learn something new and in the best interviews, they seem to learn something new as well. That is, through our conversations, they find new ways to articulate their work because someone has taken the time to ask them a few good questions.

I started out as a reporter and have been doing interviews for more than 30 years. I also study great interviewers. Many of you need to interview people for your work--either as a communications professional, program officer or evaluator. You can get the most out of interviews by taking these simple steps:

Prepare. Read the material beforehand and come to the interview with relevant questions. It helps to put the person you are talking with at ease. It also shows him that you respect his work enough to have learned about it beforehand. 

I read many reports and then need to interview the people who wrote them because I still don't understand the big picture of a project or evaluation. The authors often forget to do two key things in their reports: paint the big picture and give an example that illuminates the big picture. Consider those elements when preparing questions to ask during an interview. And send the questions in advance to give people time to prepare.

Never call it an interview. "The word 'interview' makes people feel like they are being interrogated by Woodward and Bernstein. It can cause anxiety and stage fright. Instead, ask if you can 'chat for a few minutes,'" says Merritt Engel, vice president of Merrigan & Co., a Kansas City-based agency that specializes in messaging for non-profit organizations.

Be enthusiastic about the topic. It's likely that the person you are talking to is discussing something that is near and dear to her heart, possibly her life's work. If you are genuinely enthusiastic it will show and encourage people to talk more about their work.

If you watch Larry King, you'll notice that he is always leaning toward his guests. He does that on purpose. If you are talking to someone on the phone, you can "lean forward" by showing verbal enthusiasm and interest in her work.

Ask the person to summarize his key message in or two sentences. Evaluators or program directors may resist, insisting that their complicated and nuanced work cannot be reduced to one sentence. But it can and should be if it is going to reach a wide audience.

Ask the best question. Hands down, for me, the best question to ask is the follow-up question. It is often a "why," "how do you know that," or "can you give me an example" kind of question. To get to the heart of the matter, you often need to go deeper and press the person you are talking with to explain a bit more. Don't let him off the hook on the first answer to your question. Almost always, to get what you need, you need to ask "why" three times.

By asking the question a few times, you encourage the person that you're speaking with to think more deeply and clearly about the subject, which will give you better information.

Ask the dumb question. That is, ask an obvious question that you may be afraid will make you look dumb.  Those questions are great at getting people to explain what they do. Bring your innocence to those questions. For example, ask why those after school programs are necessary for children. Why can't kids just go home and amuse themselves like we did growing up? What do these programs really accomplish?  Make the person you are talking to connect the dots and spell out why the program or research is necessary.

Ask the provocative question. We all get into ruts and need to get shaken up. In a nice way, make the person defend his position. Ask something like, "Could these after school programs just be expensive babysitters? Are these programs band-aids that don't address greater societal problems of poverty? How would you address concerns that foundations waste a lot of money on programs that never pan out?" You may get some of your most enlightening answers from these questions. It's usually best to ask these questions toward the end of your chat when you've established a rapport with the person you are talking with.

Ask the short, open-ended question. NBC host and journalist Tim Russert was a master at this. In writing about Russert's interview style, Al Tompkins of Poynteronline, said that Russert's preparation and questions made him a standard for political journalism. Tompkins wrote: "Too many pundits ask long, complex, multi-pronged questions to show how smart and connected they are. Not Russert. His questions were short and direct."

Ask "what surprised you?" That may get at the most interesting findings or results of a project.

Embrace silence. Don't be afraid of pauses. Most people cannot stand silence so they will talk to fill it in. Sometimes you'll get helpful insights from waiting out a pause.

Ask people to translate anything you don't understand, especially jargon. If you don't understand it, chances are the audience you are trying to reach won't either. Make sure you've received the definitions you need before you end an interview.

Keep people on track. If you are interviewing an expert in the field, she may tend to go into great detail, but not the detail that you need. Or she may assume a depth of understanding you don't have and fail to explain important aspects of her work. Don't be afraid to jump in and ask more questions or steer her in the direction you want her to go. You may have only a short time and need to make the most of it.

Go where the interview takes you. You should have a list of questions prepared but don't feel like you have to march through every one. If the answer to one question takes you in another direction that is helpful, follow it. It might be where you get the best nuggets.

At the end of the interview ask, "Is there something that I didn't ask that you think is important?" Sometimes your questions won't bring out an aspect that the person you are talking to feels is important. Asking the question gives him the chance to say that.

Dealing with close-mouthed people. Once in a while I'll interview someone who clearly doesn't want to be interviewed and I'll get a lot of short, monosyllabic answers. If I've done everything I've talked about earlier--been prepared, showed genuine enthusiasm and asked open-ended questions--and I still don't get far, sometimes I'll just wrap up the interview quickly. Then I'll ask him to recommend other people to talk about the topic. Not everyone gives a great interview.

Most people, however, are eager to talk about their work--especially to someone who is prepared, interested and asks thoughtful questions.

If you'd like to talk to us more about your interviewing needs,  please get in touch with us. We regularly help our clients unearth compelling findings and clear examples of their work through our interviewing and reporting skills.

Call us at (802) 748-3070 or email to discuss your needs and ideas.

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(c) 2009 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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