Put away the clipboard

When you need more information than you have in your head, and you can’t find it in a book or an article, that probably means you need to interview someone.

There are a lot of ways to approach an interview. One of the worst is to sit in front of your interview subject, stare at a clipboard and drone through a list of questions. Your interview subjects will start to feel like they are applying for a driver’s license or taking a test. They’ll often stiffen up, give the shortest answers possible and pray silently that you’ll finish quickly so they can go away.

Instead, make the interview a conversation. Most people will open up and talk about the things that matter to them if they can tell you are really interested.

One way to show your interest is to do some research ahead of time. If you are asking about their part in an event, make it clear that you’ve learned the basics about what went on. “I’ve read that there was a lot of tension in the room when you got up to speak against the plan,” or “You are credited with being the first person in your town to own one of these things.” Even if they tell you that you got bad information, they’ll know you cared enough to do some homework.

Of course you want to have a list of key questions before you start talking. My gripe about the clipboard has to do with style and presentation, not content. It’s not wrong to have a written list, just keep it off to the side. Know them well enough that you can ask them in any order.

You’ll want to avoid most questions that can be answered with a yes or a no. You want to get quotes and details, after all. (If you do get a yes or a no, follow up by asking “Why?”) On the other hand, you don’t want to leave your questions so open ended that your interviewee is left floundering. Try to get a little more specific than, “What was it like?”

Most of the time you can get a lot of mileage out of questions that deal with senses and emotions. “How intimidating was it to stand up in that middle of that crowd and tell the mayor he was wrong?” (Notice, not, “Was it intimidating?” That’s a yes-no question.) If you can get someone to talk about how excited, tired, angry or bewildered they were, you’ll often tap into a flood of good information. Depending on the subject, it might be worthwhile asking what they saw, heard, smelled or touched.

Another problem I’ve seen with the clipboard approach is when an interviewer feels locked in to the order of the list. In the course of answering a question, your interview subject may bring up something you were planning to ask about later, or even mention a new item never knew about. You need to pay attention and grab that opportunity. But I’ve seen clipboard interviewers cut off any answers that didn’t stick with the program. Not surprisingly, the other person typically shuts down and loses enthusiasm for the whole project.

Once you’ve finished with your questions, ask the other person if there’s anything else you should have asked about. Sometimes you’ll discover the most important information in your interview.

Should you record the interview? Sure, if you get the person’s permission. But take notes anyhow. The last thing you need is to press a button or click on an icon and discover that your equipment didn’t work. While you’re taking notes, remember to look up as often as you can and make eye contact with the other person.

Remember, you are having a conversation.

 


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