The Secret to Interviews

I’ve done perhaps a thousand interviews in a dozen different languages over the years. This is what I finally learned after the first few hundred:

The secret to interviews is getting people to talk about what they want to talk about, not what you think they should talk about.

But how to do know what they want to talk about?

You don’t.  You just don’t.

So you start off with what you think they should talk about. It goes without saying that you will have done your homework and have some idea of the content or marketing message you are after.

Just don’t make the mistake of getting caught up in the brilliance of your own questions. And don’t assume that you know what the ideal response should be, regardless of what the marketing people think.

Your questions are meant to be a good guess at what might get them going at what they want to talk about. And presumably you’re talking to them because they have some intimate knowledge of the subject at hand.

So start chatting. Keep it real. Keep it light and conversational.

And watch their eyes.

When those eyes light up, you’ve just found the entrance to the subject of what they like to talk about.

Listen to what they say. Really listen. Really be interested. Acknowledge what they’re saying by smiling or nodding or whatever is appropriate. Don’t cut them off.

When they seem to be finished, ask them more about what they just said. Better still, ask them something specific about something that they seem particularly interested in or emotive about. You don’t even have to ask a new question. Simply commenting on, agreeing with or otherwise acknowledging  some aspect just mentioned will be enough to get them to continue talking about it.

And let them talk.

Just keep doing that.

And if you screw it up and they seem to get more and more introverted and less and less communicative, realize that you’re the one that screwed it up, not them. That’s right. You screwed it up not them.  Whether you were too interested in yourself, your own questions, or the color of the windows curtains, you did it.

You can talk to anyone about anything that THEY are interested in.

When you find those topics, all their inhibitions disappear–so long as you do your part by listening, acknowledging and not cutting them off.

When you’re humble enough to realize that you’re the one that introverted them and got them to stop talking, there is still an out.  I’ve done it many times to miraculous results.  It goes something like this:

“Forget about everything I just said or asked. Forget about what you think you should say or what the company thinks you should say or what you think I want to hear.  What is it about this subject that interests YOU the most? What about it are you most passionate about? Go ahead, let your hair down.”

Sometimes after 30 minutes of interview, I’ve gotten the greatest percentage of my editable narrative after making that statement alone.

Click here for Part Two: The Secret to Interviews, Part 2

One response

  1. Some good sensible advice. One or two things I’d add is that it’s important to determine (to yourself and also the interviewee) what the outcome is to be. If you’re interviewing in order to capture some quoteworthy snatches for your documentary production, you’ll approach it one way, but if (say) you’re recording a person’s life story for the purpose of creating a long-term archive, then the approach is slightly different. You really do need to ask “open” rather than “closed” questions – stuff like “Can you tell me what your first impressions were of living in……etc” rather than “Did you like moving to…..”. For the latter, the answer is bound to be either “yes” or “no” and little else. And non-verbal encouragement should be practised rather than the “oh really?” and “aaaah yes!” interjections that beginners do.

    Interestingly, after a lifetime in video production I run training workshops for the Oral History Society at the British Library on the use of video in oral history interviewing as well as undertaking oral history work for organisations like the Bletchley Park Trust. What led me to your blog was the fact that I’ve just taken delivery of a fabulous new Sony PVW-X70! I’m really keen to skim some of your knowledge and experience in respect of this camera…… 🙂


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