I recently finished a series of interviews with fellow parents that explored how life changes while raising children. My goal with these interviews was to highlight different, but equally meaningful, perspectives on parenting. Along the way I learned quite a bit about interviewing, how to ask (the right!) questions, and how to conduct excellent and memorable interviews.
If you will be interviewing someone or are preparing to interview someone, here are 15 things to keep in mind as you write your interview questions and conduct your interview.
1. Be respectful of the interviewee
Always keep in mind that it is much harder being on the hot seat and getting grilled than it is asking the questions. Interviews also take time, which means that the interviewee is giving you their time – and we all know time is the most valuable commodity.
So start on time, eliminate interruptions, and look the part. Do whatever you can to respect the interviewee and their time.
2. Come prepared
There is a concept in computer science called GIGO, which stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. It basically means that the quality of the output is determined by the quality of the input.
Applied to interviewing, your questions are the input and the interviewee’s responses are the output. So if you want to conduct a quality interview, you need to spend time working on quality questions.
Think long and hard about your interviewee and their life so that you can ask the “right” questions.
3. Print out your questions, and use pen and paper during the interview
There are two reasons to print out your questions and use a pen and paper during the interview. First, I am a firm believer in looking the part. Appearance matters. It is well-known that patients are more likely to trust doctors who wear white coats. Printing out your questions (and using an interview portfolio) makes it look like you’ve prepared for and are invested in the interview.
Second, and on a more practical level, there might be times when you need to omit or skip certain questions and potentially circle back to them at a later point during the interview. Instead of trying to keep these interview logistics in your mind at the same time that you’re trying to actively listen to and engage with the interviewee, just use a pen to cross out or star a question for later.
Note that you should not be staring at your printed out questions the whole time. You need to be present, engaging, and having a conversation with the interviewee. Your ability to be an active listener will make or break your interviews.
4. Have a (very short!) introduction to set expectations
No matter what kind of interview you’re conducting – from the most casual to the most formal – always have a short introduction ready to set expectations at the start of the interview. It helps the interviewee know what’s coming.
This is not meant to be a rambling monologue. If it feels like you’re talking a lot, then you’re talking too much! Keep your introduction to less than one minute. These are some of the topics that I like to cover in my interview introductions:
- Thank you: thank the interviewee for taking the time to be interviewed
- Timing: mention the overall number of questions or approximate interview length
- Flow: might need to speed things up (read: skip or interrupt) in the interest of time
- Notes: inform the interviewee you’ll be taking notes to help me remember what was discussed (so they don’t think you’re not paying attention to them)
And if I don’t know the interviewee well, I’ll also introduce myself and give my background that is relevant to the interview.
So an interview introduction might look something like this:
Hey, thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed! I've got a list of about twenty questions to ask you, which should take about 45-60 minutes to get through. Hopefully we can get through them all, but we might need to skip a few if we're running short on time. Sound good? Great, let's get started!
An excellent example of an interview introduction comes from Oprah Winfrey when she interviewed disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong about his cheating and use of performance-enhancing drugs. It takes exactly 40 seconds for Oprah to set the stage and expectations of the interview:
"So here we are in Austin, TX. A few days ago you texted to the associated press and said, 'I told her to go wherever she wants.' Her meaning me. 'And I'll answer the questions directly, honestly, and candidly. That's all I can say.' Those are your words. When we first met a week ago today, we agreed that there would be no holds barred, no conditions on this interview, and that this would be an open field. So here we go. Open field."
You can watch this interview introduction and the beginning of Lance Armstrong’s confession here:
5. Ask short questions, then probe for more specific details with follow-up questions
After conducting several interviews, you’ll quickly come to the common finding that most interviewees default to very short replies, yes/no answers, or vague and not very useful answers to questions. As an interviewer, this can be maddening and frustrating because what you really want is some meat on the bone – interesting and substantial replies – to your questions. The important thing is to know that this will happen beforehand, so you can craft your interview questions accordingly.
The first thing to do is to come up with a short question that is easy for the interviewee to remember and answer. Something that the interviewee can easily digest. Then come up with several follow-up questions in which you probe the interviewee for more specific details. These follow-up questions will elicit the interesting and substantial replies you’re really seeking! And you’ll need a little spontaneity and improvisation with your follow-up questions.
For example, you might first ask “What do you like to do in your free time?” to which the interviewee might respond “I like to run and cook.” Ok, now it’s time for the follow-up questions. You can ask a wide variety of follow-up questions and take the interview in all sorts of different directions. “What about running do you like?” “What distance do you run?” “Are you a recreational or competitive runner?” “Which runner – past or present – most inspires you?” And where you need a little spontaneity and improvisation – especially if you happen to know something about their response: “What are your thoughts on the latest Nike Vaporfly shoes that have been banned from competitions?”
Same thing with cooking: “What meals do you like to cook?” “Do you bake as well?” “What’s your favorite dish to make for yourself?” “What’s your favorite dish to make for others?” “What recipe does your family like the most?” “How did you get into cooking?” “Who is your favorite chef?”
The follow up questions are the moneymakers! This is where you need to spend the majority of your preparation time when creating interview questions.
6. Pauses and time to think are not awkward silences – they’re perfectly ok!
If you’re not used to interviewing, then long pauses after asking a question can seem strange and awkward. You might find yourself wondering why the interviewee isn’t responding or can’t think of an answer.
I’ve mentioned this before: remember that it is much harder being on the hot seat and getting grilled than it is asking the questions. Outside of an interview a person might be able to come up with several examples in response to a question, but when asked during an interview they just draw a blank.
I found this happened a lot in my Parenthood Interviews with one question. As a parent, it’s well-known that kids say the darndest things. So I often asked other parents what was the funniest or craziest thing their child/children had said to them. And often the parent would completely relate to the question, but not be able to think of a specific example off the top of their head. So I’d either come back to it or ask them to e-mail me an example later on.
If this happens to you during your interview, reassure the interviewee that it’s ok to take time to think of an answer. But if you still haven’t gotten a response for more than thirty seconds, mark the question and come back to it later so you keep the interview flowing. Or you can ask the interviewee to send you an example later on after the interview.
7. Keep the interview flowing
Like a good book or song, there should be a certain flow and cadence to the interview. You also want to make sure that, as the interviewer, you are maintaining control and dictating the pace of the interview.
This is particularly important if the interviewee is naturally long-winded and gives verbose, wordy answers to questions. When this happens, I like to subtly interrupt – usually agreeing with and commenting on something they’ve said – and then immediately ask the next question. This serves as a delicate way of cutting the interviewee off.
8. If possible, ask targeted questions
Asking targeted questions means asking questions that are highly specific to your interviewee. For instance, in my Parenthood Interviews, I asked a mother of three children which transition she found the hardest: going from 0 to 1 child, 1 to 2 children, or 2 to 3 children? Obviously that question only makes sense if you have three children.
Asking targeted questions definitely assumes you know a bit about your interviewee. But targeted questions will make your interviewee feel appreciated because they will have subjects they know a lot about and thus can talk a lot about. Interviewees will also sense you came prepared to the interview, and appreciate that level of preparation.
So if you know your interviewee plays tennis, ask them “Which professional tennis player’s game do you most with you could emulate?” Or if you know your interviewee just wrote their first book, ask them “What was it like getting your first book published?”
9. Also ask open-ended questions!
While targeted questions are nice to have, open-ended questions are absolutely fantastic because the replies can go anywhere. There are no right or wrong answers, so they inherently facilitate conversation and follow-up questions! Open-ended questions will definitely elicit interesting and substantial replies from your interviewee.
Examples of open-ended questions are “How would you describe yourself?”, “What is the title of your life biography so far?”, and “What motivates you to do your best?”.
When crafting questions for an interview, make sure you have both targeted and open-ended questions.
10. Don’t lead the witness (unless they ask for clarification)
Leading the witness is a method of asking questions such that the interviewee answers them in a certain way. I have found that, when asking questions, you need to be careful so that you don’t unintentionally steer the interviewee toward a certain response. You want to avoid this, and let the interviewee interpret questions themselves and respond naturally.
For example, don’t ask “What makes Tom Brady the greatest football quarterback of all time?” This automatically steers the interviewee’s response to Tom Brady. Instead, ask “Who do you think is the greatest football quarterback of all time?” and see what they say, then go from there.
The only exception to this is if an interviewee asks for clarification about a certain question. Then definitely try to clarify the confusion so they get the point of the question – even if it means leading their reply a certain way. Then, after the interview is over, evaluate the phrasing and overall utility of that question. You might be able to to rephrase it so that it’s clearer in subsequent interviews, or simply omit the question altogether.
11. Have one or two light-hearted questions ready
I tend to ask one or two light-hearted questions toward the end of the interview. I have several reasons for this. First, these light-hearted questions gradually end the interview as opposed to a slew of questions followed by a sudden stop. Second, light-hearted questions give some levity to the interview and help put the interviewee at ease. Anything you can do to make the interviewee more comfortable and relaxed is a win. Third, light-hearted questions help to end the interview on a good note. You want the interviewee coming away from the interview having had a positive experience, and some light-hearted questions toward the end of the interview will help ensure that.
Examples of light-hearted questions I ask are “Would you rather breathe like Darth Vader or talk like Yoda?” and “Would you rather go bungee jumping or go skydiving?”
12. Have more questions prepared than you will ask
Dwight D. Eisenhower is known to have said that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. With regard to an interview, despite preparation and time spent crafting excellent questions, you never really now where an interview is going to go.
You might find that you need to eliminate some questions due to time constraints or long-winded responses. Or you might find that an interviewee coincidentally answers another question you plan to ask during their current response.
So to safeguard against this, I tend to have about 5 more questions ready than I will actually end up asking.
13. Think twice about asking taboo or pointed questions
I’m not strictly against asking taboo or pointed questions, but you’re probably not Oprah and you’re probably not interviewing disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. We’re also a couple hundred years removed from the end of the Spanish Inquisition.
The truth is that no one likes to be set up, you might not get genuine responses, these types of questions might be inappropriate, and they instantly make people feel uncomfortable and clam up. All of these things are usually really bad with regard to interviewing. Taboo or pointed questions can affect the entire tone of the rest of the interview.
So before asking taboo or pointed questions, make sure you’re confident that the interviewee won’t be offended and that they won’t derail the interview.
14. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification
This might be the biggest mistake novice interviewers make. If you need clarification about an answer, do NOT move on to the next question before getting the clarification you need. You don’t want to be working on the Q&A write-up/summary later only to realize you don’t know what you’re talking about because you were confused during the interview and didn’t ask for clarification.
I think this is particularly common if math or science is involved, and interviewers don’t want to look like they don’t understand, don’t follow, or aren’t smart. Don’t fall prey to hubris! Ask the interviewee to clarify or simplify their explanation until you understand everything they’re saying.
15. Be an active listener and show that you care about the responses
Throughout the whole interview, you absolutely must be listening to what the interviewee is saying. Very carefully. Do not zone out!
Ultimately, you want the interviewee to come away from the interview feeling good and, ideally, having learned something about themselves. Interviewees can quickly sense how the interview is going and whether or not you’re engaged. So pay attention to your intonation and non-verbal body cues! It matters!
After the interview…
If interviewing is something you’ll be doing often, then it’s important to learn from the interview. What questions worked well and what questions didn’t? Scrap the ones that didn’t or try to rephrase them. Did you ask too many questions or not enough questions? Did you ask enough targeted or open-ended questions?
Reflect and apply lessons learned to your next interview. Practice makes perfect!
This is a very entertaining and enjoyable book to read related to interviewing and Q&As:
Did you find these tips helpful? What do you do when you have to interview someone? Let me know in the comments below!
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