Conducting an excellent interview isn’t a skill that’s limited to journalism; this ability can actually be used in a range of everyday interactions.
While on the surface it may seem like the purpose of an interview is simply to get answers to a set of questions, conducting a great one can yield unexpected benefits. For instance, a photojournalist may interview their subject at length to understand their story, and in the process can develop an organic photographer-subject relationship off-camera. Thus, the authenticity of the photo becomes more genuine.
Similarly, any career that involves working with clients requires some interviewing skills. In some cases, clients may not know exactly what they want. By apply interviewing skills to your practice, you can understand your client and get the answers you need to successfully deliver your service.
Below are the three stages of an interview and tips for mastering them all to get the answers you want!
STAGE 1: Pre-planning Your Interview
Determine a centralized topic you would like to discuss with your interviewee
When you identify a centralized interview topic, you can keep your questions centered and focused. This will give the interview a natural flow. As well, this is a great way for your interviewee to get a sense of how the interview will proceed, which can help them gauge how to answer each question. In a sense, your topic is synonymous with your mission statement.
Figure out your initial course of action
In most cases, you will do one of the following two things to prepare for your interview:
A) Create general questions based off answers you seek that your interviewee is qualified to answer.
In this scenario, you choose a topic before you find your interviewee. That means that your first step will be to create a set of guidelines outlining the qualifications the interviewee has to have. For example, you may be seeking answers to the question: How do Canadian university students feel about the presidential elections in the United States? In this scenario, you would reach out to candidates who meet your qualifications and interview them based on general questions that have to do with your topic.
B) Meet with a specific interviewee and ask questions based on their expertise.
In this scenario, you’ll already know who the interviewee is when you’re thinking of interview questions. Because the interviewee is considered an expert on their topic, the goal is to compile questions that are specific to the interviewee. For instance, if you were interviewing the lead star of a new movie, your questions would be specific to your research and knowledge about the lead and about the new movie.
In either case, open-ended inquiries are preferable, since your interviewee can decide how they want to answer and can consider many of their experiences to draw upon in their answer, which leads to a more varied interview. Also, make sure you have a few backup questions.
Do preliminary research on your interviewee and solidify an interview date
Your next step is to research your interviewee, their career, interests, and what they’re known for. When you reach out to the interviewee to request an interview, make sure that you demonstrate the research you’ve done by telling them why you’re the right person to discuss their work. Be concise with your intentions to show that you’re serious and focused on the project (this is where your central topic will come in handy).
Once you receive a green light to proceed, set a time, date, duration, and location that suits you. Choose appropriately; public places and certain times may be of inconvenience during certain hours or may not be interview-friendly. Some good interview places include: empty cafes, small diners, and quiet parks (depending on the casualness of the interview). If you are currently a student, most universities and colleges have rooms you can book for up to an hour or two that are secluded but in the public realm.
Create a contract if necessary
A contract, or a written agreement that the interview will be documented and used for a specific purpose, may be the necessary last step for your interview prep. This is also an opportunity to establish any payments or non-payments of the publication.
Depending on the publication medium, this may be required to avoid future lawsuits. Though you would have already discussed the expectations of the interview, a written contract clearly outlines your intentions for the interview in a professional manner.
STAGE 2: The Day of the Interview
Re-confirm your interview time, dress well, and arrive early
Send your interviewee a reminder of the meeting time if your confirmation of the interview was over a week ago.
Non-verbal cues make up 55% of communication, which includes facial expression, body language, posture, gesture, style choices, and more. Dress in a manner that will not distract the interviewee and will garner their respect. This means that you’ll want to tailor your outfit choice to the interviewee themselves: a garage band musician may not feel comfortable speaking with someone who is dressed in a polished suit and tie. Alternatively, a business consultant may raise their eyebrows if you dress too casually. Additionally, you may want to practice some power poses to help make you more confident.
You’ll also want to arrive 15 minutes early and set up. As the interviewer, you should be the first person to arrive. You shouldn’t be scrambling upon your interviewee’s arrival. Finally, stand up and greet your interviewee upon their arrival. Shake hands firmly and thank them for coming.
First impressions will set the tone for the interview, so start with some polite banter. They aren’t robots – be yourself and make them feel comfortable! Do not jump right into business unless they are in a rush and would like to get started. Offer to get them coffee if you are in a setting that provides that option.
STAGE 3: The Interview
Remind them of the direction and purpose of the interview
To start your interview, quickly run over the topics you’d like to cover during your discussion and let them know about all post-interview publications they should be aware of. Allow them to look over and sign the contract (if necessary) and ask them if they have any questions before beginning.
When you begin asking questions, let them flow naturally. Let the interviewee speak and answer at their own pace, and never interrupt them. There may be clarifications required on both ends, so don’t be offended if this happens. Everyone communicates differently – just apologize and move on if an awkward moment arises.
Only interject when they have finished their points
People love talking about themselves and telling their stories from their point of view. Even if you feel that their answer has not quite hit your question, allow them to finish and ask them to clarify on a specific point. Remember, listening is more important than hearing. If an interviewee shares something with you, and you simply attempt to get your question answered, they will become annoyed.
Additionally, avoid inflammatory questions. Even if you have some difficult subject matter to cover, you want to avoid making your subject feel attacked, otherwise they will not feel comfortable disclosing anything and cause the interview to reach a screeching halt. You can attempt to probe, but back off if your subject feels you have over-stepped boundaries.
Make them feel comfortable
Gauge the comfort level of your interviewee. They may be as nervous or more nervous than you! Sometimes, opening up a little about yourself can help ease them into sharing something personal about themselves. Some interviewees prefer a more casual chat, while others may not be as interested in what you have to say – their behavioural cues will help you determine how they want the interview to be structured.
Similarly, allow for flow. Imagine you are talking to an old acquaintance. Avoid being too chummy, but remain friendly. People share more with people who they feel comfortable with, so try to establish a connection. The more genuinely relaxed the interviewee feels, the more they will open up. This interview style can also help you build your professional reputation; people do not always remember what you asked, but they do remember how you made them feel!
Lastly, smile, nod, and react appropriately. Interviews can be nerve-wracking, but people respond better when they are receiving positive feedback. Therefore, laugh, gasp, joke, nod, and be concerned when it is fitting! This all reveals to your interviewee that you are listening.
Avoid asking general, sweeping questions
For instance, rather than asking: Can you elaborate on ______? Ask: You mentioned ______, what specifically about _____ makes you say _____? This way, the interviewee will really hone in on what needs to be clarified. Simply asking, “What do you mean?” after an answer just leads to confusion, as the interviewee may expand even further away from the question you want answered.
Thank them for their time and wrap up any last questions or remarks
Whether your questions have all been answered or time has run out, thank the interviewee for their time. Avoid going over the allotted time as people are busy and have places to be! That is why having a prepared interview package is key. End by stating “I have one last question for you: ________?” Keep this question short and sweet; the interviewee is not about to embark on another long answer so close to the end.
Alternatively, you could conclude by re-stating their most important points and asking the interviewee if they would like to add any last remarks. This gives the subject the opportunity to share something you may have forgotten to touch on.
Shake hands and bid them farewell
Inform them of an estimation of when they would see the published interview. This allows you to wrap up and reveal a publication date to to your interviewee. Chances are, they are equally as curious and excited to see the final product.
Being able to conduct interviews well takes a lot of practice! The best way to become comfortable with one-on-one communication is to put yourself out there and start developing interpersonal skills. A blend of curiosity, respect, and confidence can take you a long way and propel your career forward. Knowing how and when to ask the right questions reveals to potential employers your ability to research efficiently, be observant, generate new ideas, sift through large amounts of information, and create meaningful connections. Give it a try! You never know what knowledge someone can share with you if you just ask.