The Priceless Lesson I Learned About Interviewing Technique



Okay, I’ll admit it. I talk a lot.

I’m kind of introverted and definitely deal with a bit of social anxiety, which I mentioned on a recent post about becoming a better blogger by taking risks. But once I get to know you, I will “talk yer ear off” as my mama would say.

While being friendly has opened amazing doors for me, during one press trip, I learned a really important lesson about interviewing technique: sometimes, to get the best interview, you really need to just shut up.

John Minihan and Alastair McKenzie

More Questions = More Content

When I was in high school, I took a journalism class where we learned the basics of interviewing other people. We talked about formulating interviews so we got answers to the “W Questions.” The interviewing technique our teacher drove home most was (and I’m paraphrasing):

“Always ask as many questions as possible. More information is better than less information. You don’t want to sit down to write a story and realize that you don’t have a crucial piece of information, and you really don’t want your competitors to have the edge on you because they asked a question you didn’t.”

So, when I started interviewing people for blog stories, I took that same approach. Ask, ask, ask. In my mind, more questions meant more content, and that meant more opportunities to tell stories.

I don’t think that journalism teacher told the whole story, though. I love the idea of having as much content as possible for a story, but I do think sometimes it is important to stop asking questions and start allowing people to tell you their stories, the way they want to tell them.

The Art of the Ask

On the press trip in question, I got the amazing opportunity to meet and interview a high-level personality who rarely agrees to speak with press let alone bloggers. I had a notebook full of questions I wanted to ask him, but before I got the chance, one of the other bloggers on the trip asked for the opportunity to record a video interview.

So we all had to take a backseat and just watch while this happened.

Once I saw the interviewer work, my entire philosophy on interviewing changed. Recording more content isn’t about asking as many questions as possible. It is about asking the right questions. This is an art form.

While I was forced to quietly watch the video being recorded, I stopped thinking about what I was going to ask next and instead just listened to the person telling his story. If you are quiet, people will talk. We were interviewing this person primarily about tech and his latest start-up, but he talked about being a young boy in the military, about his struggles as a budding entrepreneur, and about his thoughts on life and the world in general. His stories were fascinating.

The interview asked a question here or there, but his interviewing technique was not not about getting an answer to a specific question. The questions were simply meant to encourage the person to keep talking.

The interview went on for at least 30 minutes, and we were all simply captivated by his tales. Now, was everything the person said going to make it into the final cut? No way. But that half hour was filled with gold.

Shaping an Interview

What I also realized was that because I was going into interviews trying to ask as many questions as possible, I was shaping an interview based on my perspective. When you only ask the questions that pop into your mind, you’re potentially missing valuable information that the person you’re interviewing just doesn’t have the opportunity to tell you. This interviewing technique might get you answers, but will it get you the whole truth?

Stop to listen, and suddenly they’re giving you answers to questions you never asked, and you are allowing their perspective to shine. This is truly authentic content at its best.

Shaping your interviews structurally is important because what you present to your audience has to make sense. However, when you have pre-set questions in mind, you run the risk of presenting a somewhat skewed or dishonest story. This kind of shaping is no good! You’re almost coaching the person to give you the answers you want to hear, instead of the truth. I don’t believe that most interviewers, including myself, go into interviews with those intentions, but that’s the result.

Bottom Line: This Interviewing Technique is About Have More Conversations

Instead of continuing to think about interviews in the traditional sense, I want to encourage you to instead have conversations with people. Tell them about your experiences, and then ask them to share theirs. On camera, this is a little trickier, because you want to be able to edit together a video that makes sense, but it isn’t impossible.

The key is to ask questions that make the interviewee feel comfortable. Smile and allow them to speak. When there’s a pause, don’t jump on asking the next question. Be a friend.

The less your interview feels like an interview, the more people will tell you, so focus on just talking with people instead of a formal interview where you’re throwing question after unrelated question their direction.

Above all, remember to always have fun. Interviews used to stress me out, but more and more I’m realizing that when you’re having a good time with it, the person you’re interviewing will be more at ease and willing to tell you their story.

What is your best interview tip? Leave a comment!

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