How to be a better interviewer

In my role writing marketing content, one of my key responsibilities has involved interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) about a particular topic.

It’s a collaborative process, where I am taking the knowledge and expertise that the SMEs have and crafting that knowledge into informative, interesting and relevant marketing content. Whether it’s an online article, blog or thought leadership paper.

When I think about this process, it reminds me how important it is to have the right information in order to create the content you want. To achieve this requires knowing how to ask the right questions to the people you’re interviewing in order to get the information you want.

Journalists are always asking questions but the skill of being a good interviewer is also vitally important in the field of content marketing. I thought I’d share some of my ideas on what makes a good interview and how you can get the information that you want.

Think of the questions your audience would like to ask

When you’re interviewing somebody, you should always consider your audience. This means thinking about the type of information they want to know, and how it’s of relevance to them. You should also consider asking the type of questions your audience would like to ask if given the opportunity.

This is important, as ultimately you’re creating content that is for the benefit of your audience so they need to be taken into consideration.
Of course you can always ask your own personal individual questions and express your opinions and ideas to your interviewee, but effective interviewing will always take into account the views and feelings of the audience who will ultimately consume the content you create from the interview.

Do your research

If you’ve arranged a meeting to interview someone in order to write about a particular topic, it’s obviously important to prepare and do your research.

In many cases you’re interviewing somebody because they are an expert and they will be able to provide information, opinion and insight into the topic that you are covering. That doesn’t mean to say that you cannot do your own research. Leading on from the importance of asking the right questions, you can only ask the right questions if you have some background general knowledge on the topic you are covering.

Last year, I was required to begin writing articles on the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) within banking and financial services. In preparation for my meetings with SMEs, I made sure that I read any articles about AI in newspapers and magazines I came across. I did this to develop some basic knowledge about the topic.

Do deviate from the script

As part of your research before you interview somebody, you should in theory have a clear idea of some of the questions you intend to ask your interviewee. These should be questions that you know your audience will be interested in knowing the answers.

In saying this, you should remain flexible. Your interviewee may respond with answers which raise more questions for both you and your audience. When this happens you should be in a position to immediately pick up on this and react, and this means being able ask new questions and pursue a new line of enquiry which may not have been one of your original intentions.

You should not be afraid to take the interview and conversation in a different direction if it feels natural. There is nothing wrong with taking detours when interviewing people.

It’s important to listen

Taking detours with your interview relies on your ability to listen.

Listening seems a fairly obvious thing to do when you’re interviewing somebody but it’s not as easy as you might think.

How many of us have found ourselves in situations where we’re having a conversation with somebody. We’re making all the right noises, nodding our head in agreement at certain points they’re making, but in our head we’ve drifted off and are thinking about a completely different subject.

This is something that is so easy to do when interviewing somebody; especially if they’re explaining a point that is complex and difficult to understand.

It’s easy for your mind to wonder and you may already begin thinking about the next question you want to ask. It’s so important to concentrate, even if you’re not quite sure what you’re interviewee is talking about. If you listen properly and carefully, it will allow you to still ask an appropriate question, even if that question is simply one stating that you didn’t quite understand the last point that was made.

Don’t be afraid to ask the stupid question

If you’re listening properly you’ll be able to follow up with the right question even if it’s a question you did not originally plan on asking.

If you don’t understand something that has been said to you or a point made by your interviewee doesn’t appear to make obvious sense – don’t be afraid to ask tHE stupid or obvious question.

This is so important. Many of us have specialist knowledge and understanding on different topics. This can relate to the jobs we do to our own individual hobbies and interests. It’s important to remember that things we know about that seem obvious to us won’t always appear that way to others whose understanding and knowledge is limited.

It’s is easy to nod our heads pretending that we understand what’s being said to us by experts; but when we ask what appears to be the stupid or obvious question what normally happens is that you end up with a critically important answer that can be crucial to understanding the content you’re trying to create.

Control the interview

The ability to control an interview is another vital ingredient to successfully interviewing somebody. The people we interview will all have different characters and personalities. Some will be more forthcoming with chatting while others will be more reticent.

I’ve found myself in situations where I’ve interviewed people who are naturally outgoing and gregarious. They have a lot of opinions and thoughts and are happy to share this with you.

On the one hand this can make the interview fun and enjoyable but it can create a challenge if your interviewee begins talking about topics that may be interesting, are not necessarily important for the piece of content you’re creating.

If faced with this situation, it’s important to control the interview by bringing the conversation back to the topics of relevance. If you don’t, you run the risk of recording an interview with either too much information – some of which will not always be relevant to your topic. And alternatively, you may not have the information and insight that was needed when you originally set up the interview.

Once the interview has finished you will not always be in a position to go back to the interviewee for further questions, so it’s incredibly important that you make sure you get the information you need and not allow your interviewee to digress and go off topic.