Want to up your interviewing game? Here’s what you should – and shouldn’t – do

Want to up your interviewing game? Here’s what you should – and shouldn’t – do

Even if you’re not a budding Christiane Amanpour or Graham Norton, knowing how to interrogate interview people is a handy skill to have.

Especially if you do copywriting or lead an in-house marketing team that produces content.

And if you’re wondering, ‘What’s there to know? Isn’t an interview just about asking a question and getting an answer?’ – I’m so glad you’re here.

Here at RM, my colleagues and I interview all sorts of people to write copy all the time. Business owners for About pages. Our clients’ clients for case studies. And subject matter experts for thought-leadership articles.

Plus, I’ve personally had my fair share of interviewing guests for radio shows and podcasts.

So buckle up, as I take you through some quick dos and don’ts to help you master the art of interviewing.

The DOs of interviewing

Know your goal  

Every interview has an end game. And you need to know yours before you start.

What are you hoping to gain from your interview? Specific product information? Insider knowledge about a topical issue? Personal anecdotes to beef up a person’s profile?

What’s the tone you’re out to build? Professional? Cheeky? Serious?

Knowing what you’re after will help you focus your research and prepare your questions the right way. It also stops you from trying to cover too much unnecessary territory.

Top tip: What you need to know correlates with the time you need for the actual interview. If you only need a quote or two, don’t schedule a one-hour interview. But if you’re after someone’s full history, you’ll need way more than 15 minutes.

Channel your inner Sherlock Holmes

You’ll be surprised how many interviewers saunter up to an interview with no preparation. No matter how much of an extrovert you may be, it’s not enough to just turn up and talk.

Always, always, research the topic or the person you’re interviewing as much as you can. Your background sleuthing will help you deliver better questions, elevate your confidence – and improve conversation quality.

Top tip: Even when you think there’s nothing to research, there always will be. Explore your interviewee’s competitors or check out relevant news stories. Google is your Dr Watson. Or the Sallah to your Indiana Jones. Whichever you fancy.

Settle their nerves

It can feel intimidating to be interviewed. And as the interviewer, it’s up to you to set the mood and tone of the meeting.

So how can you make your guest feel comfortable?

Start with some light conversation. If needed, talk them through the interview purpose, process and equipment so they know what to expect. Try to find a common ground where possible. And always be respectful, attentive and responsive.

Top tip: If you’re the one feeling nervous – remember that your interviewee probably feels more nervous than you. And that they – no matter how famous or smart or acclaimed – are still just human at the end of the day. You’ll be alright.

Keep an open mind

Always approach your interviewee with an open mind and positive curiosity.

Refrain from judging, and don’t draw conclusions too quickly. As Einstein said, ‘Any fool can know. The point is to understand.’

Also, this probably goes without saying, but try not to argue with your interviewee. (Save that for your political debate with the in-laws at Sunday brunch!)

Top tip: If there’s something you didn’t quite catch or understand, don’t be afraid to clarify. Because if you didn’t get it, chances are your target audience or readers won’t get it either.

Go for gold

In interviews, there are questions – and there are good questions.

Opt for open-ended questions wherever possible to avoid the dreaded ‘yes/no’ answer. Unless, of course, you need the interviewee to confirm specific information – such as ‘Did you or did you not eat that last cookie in the pantry?’

Otherwise, phrase your questions in a way that would encourage your interviewee to expand their answers – such as ‘What made you take that last cookie?’

Also, be careful not to confuse your interviewee with long-winded questions. Keep them short and to the point. And ask one question at a time.

Top tip: Ask for examples, elaborations and anecdotes. These often lead you to interesting information that can jazz up your copy or content.

The DON’Ts of interviewing

Don’t be a hog

As the interviewer, your role is to keep the limelight and focus on the interviewee. Of course, you can and should – and sometimes even need to – share a bit about yourself to build rapport or lead up to a question. But keep it brief.

Your interviewee should be the one talking most of the time, not you. And don’t interrupt your interviewee unless you absolutely must. (Like if the fire alarms are going off in your building. Or if they’re really rambling on and on, putting Donkey from Shrek to shame.)

Remember: You may be a good interviewer if you’re witty and interesting. But you’ll be a great interviewer if you make your guest sound witty and interesting. So focus on drawing out the best from your interviewee – not yourself.

Don’t forget to listen

When you’re conducting an interview, there’s a lot going on.

At any one second, you’re probably thinking about the next question. Wondering if the interview is going the right way. Deciding how you can use the answers for your content. Maintaining a friendly facial expression. And checking that the recording device has not failed.  

It’s a lot to juggle. I know.

BUT, you still need to actively listen to what your interviewee is saying. And do your best to genuinely engage with them. (No fake laughing!)

Don’t miss the breadcrumbs

Yes, you need to have a list of questions to guide you through the interview.

But this list shouldn’t be your be-all and end-all. Don’t just tick off the list. Keep an ear out for answers that may require follow-up questions – and ask them.

Sometimes, something else entirely may crop up during the interview that’s worth pursuing. So be ready to follow a different trail if your interviewee drops interesting breadcrumbs.

Don’t be afraid of silence

Your interviewee may occasionally need some time to think about their response or process their thoughts. Let them. Don’t be too quick to fill in the silence.

When you wait patiently, you’re showing them respect, and that you believe what they say is important.

Silence can also be powerful. Because people generally hate silence, they tend to keep talking if no one interrupts them or picks up the conversation. So you can sometimes use that to your advantage to encourage your interviewee to talk more.

Don’t dishonour the ‘off the record’ code

You may not be a journo. And your interviewee may not be sharing state secrets that could potentially jeopardise national security.

But, if you’ve done your job as an interviewer well, you would have built a safe and comfortable space for your guest. And they just may trust you enough to share more than they should.

So if they decide to give you some insider info, but request for it to be ‘off the record’ and not to be published – honour that. No matter how juicy or interesting the information.

A successful interviewer builds relationships based on trust. Don’t break it.

Bonus tip: Hit the record button!

If you’re gifted in shorthand and can jot down 350 words in two minutes – GOOD ON YA’!

But even then, it’s good practice to record your interview. This ensures you don’t miss anything and allows you to pay full attention to your interviewee, rather than the notes you’re writing.

At the same time, be sure to keep an eye on your recording device throughout the interview. Because you don’t want the horror of wrapping up a fantastic, brilliant, out-of-the-world spectacular interview… only to find out that the tech has failed you. (I may or may not be speaking from traumatic experience. You’re welcome.) 

Want someone to help you do the interview – and write brilliant copy or content to go with it? Let’s catch up.