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"A Communications Specialist’s Guide to Conducting Interviews"

By Jessica Walton

The ability to conduct a smashing interview is an important asset not just for journalists, but for communications specialists, too. Recently, interviews have played a starring role in my toolbox as an integrated communications specialist and writer.

 

I conduct interviews to support a range of projects, from articles to recruitment campaigns to creative videos. Although it’s a skill I’ve been honing for a few years now – in a variety of roles – I have a lot of lessons learned lately that have been bubbling in my head.

With the goal of assisting other communications specialists, I’m sharing a few key ideas that have helped me get what I need out of interviews recently. Read on, my fellow comms people, read on:

 

Solid Research and Good Manners

It doesn’t matter if I’m interviewing a junior-level employee or a director. I always come to an interview with solid research under my belt and a sense of gratitude. I make sure to say “thank you for your time” at both the start and the conclusion of the interview, because really no one owes you their time.

Another way of showing respect and rocking a great interview is doing oodles of research before you come to the show. Avoid asking what the Israeli Army calls a “kitbag question” (translation: a very basic question that exposes how tragically clueless you are). If you can find the answer easily on the Internet, it’s probably a kitbag question. Make sure you utilize your time most wisely during an interview by asking nuanced questions that initiate unique insights.

Bottom line: It sounds basic, but if you start off with good manners and good research, you’ll get your interviewee nice and comfortable and ready to share quality information (which is the point of the interview).

 

Set the Stage and Then Step Away

It’s not about you. Set the stage for the interviewee with a brief intro and a well-prepared question, and then take a step back so the light can shine on your subject. This doesn’t mean you can’t step back in to ask brief follow-up questions along the way that enhance the interview and allow more detailed information to flow.  

I have little sympathy for interviewers on TV who anger the interviewee who then humiliates the interviewer by walking off the stage. Unless it was specifically your job to engage in debate, your questions should be as neutral as possible so that you can initiate genuine responses. (That’s just my take on some recent blood-curdling interviews by “opinion journalists;” feel free to disagree.)

Right, so back to keeping those questions neutral: if you inflict your biases heavily on an interviewee they will probably clam up or get defensive. I usually show my questions first to a colleague before the interview to make sure that I’m using the best (neutral) wording possible. I also do my best to order the questions in a way that create natural segues.

 

Bottom line: Keep your questions short and sweet. Don’t confuse people with long-winded, exhausting questions. Your interviewee is already excited about the subject matter if they’ve agreed to the interview and will happily share their knowledge with you.

You Don't Have to Know it All

Because I work in the area of aerospace/defense, I’ve interviewed quite a few people with a PhD in aeronautics or a background in artificial intelligence and so on. There is no way I’m going to become an expert in aeronautics or AI overnight. If I tried, my head would explode, especially since I’m not a STEM-inclined person. (If you saw my third-grade math scores, you would understand.)

With that said, I do my best to know the basics before hitting the scene (this goes back to research . . .). Know the key terms, a general outline of programs and key players and some basic technology vernacular. Even if you’re not an expert in aerothermochemistry or quantum computing, you can Google basic explanations for terms and read whatever your company and other similar organizations have published already on the subject.

This ensures that you ask the right questions, even if they’re a little on the broad side. In case you’re concerned of missing a critical piece of information in the interview, I always leave some space at the end for the following question: is there anything I missed that you would like people to know?

I still occasionally ask questions during the interview for clarification. For the most part, though, I do my best to allow the interviewee to flow with their idea, figuring I can always look up unfamiliar terms later (or email the interviewee with follow-up questions for clarification when crucial).

Bottom line: You don’t have to be an expert in everything. Just be a tenacious researcher (preferably with well-organized notes).

Allow a Review Process

I generally allow interviewees to review the material I wrote before it goes on its merry way to editorial. I’m even game to sharing the interview questions after the interview to allow the interviewee to fill in more details that come to mind in the interim. I don’t want to say anything in an article that isn’t accurate (especially when writing about defense topics!), but just as important I don’t want to accidentally misrepresent an interviewee’s words.  

Bottom line: I love the art of the interview. I really do. Maybe it’s because I love the art of the story and the lessons we can all learn from the experiences of others. Like from an astronaut: I learned that space actually has its own smell. Who knew?

 

As a communications specialist, most likely I won’t be traveling to space any time soon. But stories do allow us to feel more connected with others by inhabiting their experiences. Just like readers love to get lost in a good story, I like to lose myself in the flow of a great interview.

I hope these tips allow you to do that, too!

View original article here.