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The Art of the Interview (Part 2)

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 that time I interviewed former astronaut Tony Antonelli: I learned that space actually has its own smell. Who knew?

As a communications strategist, 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 top 10 tips for conducting a great interview will allow you to do that, too:

Note: My first article discussing interview tips, The Art of the Interview: Part 1, focused more on the prep side. These tips cover managing the interview itself.

Tip #1: Bring the right equipment

Bring a recorder, and a back-up recorder, to be safe. If audio quality is essential (for example, when shooting a video), make sure to test the acoustics in the room ahead of time and use a microphone attachment. Skip the handheld mic and go for a lavalier instead to leave your hands free for taking notes.

Tip #2: Pick the right setting

Find a quiet spot with little or no ambient noise. You don’t want a distracted interviewee. You also want the recording to be clear enough so you can easily transcribe the material later. If you’re using video, try to find a backdrop that shows the context of where you are (as opposed to a plain wall that could be anywhere).

Tip #3: Set the stage, then take a step back

It’s not about you. Set the stage for the interviewee with a brief intro and a simple question designed to engage, 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 follow-up questions along the way; just be careful not to interrupt or insert your opinions too heavily. Which leads me to…

Tip #4: Keep it neutral

Unless it is specifically your job to engage in debate, your questions should be as neutral as possible to initiate genuine responses from your subject. If you inflict your biases heavily, there’s a good chance your subject will clam up or get defensive. Occasionally, I show my questions to a colleague before the interview to make sure that I’m using the best (neutral) wording possible.

Tip #5: Keep it short and sweet

Create questions ahead of time that are 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. Aim to start a natural conversation. (Just don’t ask yes-or-no questions that stop the flow short.)

Tip #6: Build trust

In the same vein of “short and sweet,” start with a question that is easy to answer. If the interviewee is intimidated by the idea of being interviewed, it will help set their mind at ease. You want the subject to think of this as a conversation, not an interrogation.

Tip #7: Avoid interrupting, unless required to keep the focus

Be careful not to talk over your subject when they respond. Wait until they are done before you ask the next question. (I’m guilty of this, especially when excited about a topic. I’m learning to control the interrupting urge!) However, if an interviewee is drifting way off topic, you should gently rein them back in so you don’t lose precious interview time on non-relevant material.

Tip #8: Get more material with follow-up questions

Don’t be shy about stepping in along the way to ask brief follow-up questions that enhance the interview and allow more detailed information to flow. Play off the interviewee’s responses. If they tell you something interesting, ask them to tell you more; don’t just go to the next question. Consider what will compel your subject to provide information the audience/reader doesn’t already know.

Tip #9: Use good etiquette

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 to show I prepared thoroughly. I don’t push too hard for more information if the interviewee doesn’t want to discuss a particular topic. And 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.

Tip #10: Follow up

Follow up with a thank you email for the interviewee’s time. Optional: allow the interviewee to review the material you wrote before it goes on its merry way to editorial. You want to make sure your material is completely accurate (especially if writing about high-tech or defense topics!) and that you don’t burn a bridge by misrepresenting the interviewee’s words.

Did you find this article useful? I’d love to hear your feedback. 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’m always open to hearing tips on what worked for you.

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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.

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