Top Five Tips for Interviewing an Expert
The single best way to get quality information quickly for your blog or website is to interview an expert.
Experts provide you with a storehouse of knowledge so vast it takes a lifetime to learn. In fact, that’s why they’re “experts;” they’ve spent many years learning their trade and will probably be happy to share their expertise.
The phrase, “interviewing an expert,” might sound intimidating, so let’s change it. You’re going to meet a new friend.
I spent over twenty years in the TV production business interviewing everyone from top level politicians to psychopathic killers. (OK, no jokes about how the two are scarily similar. 🙂
Sometimes I had time to prepare for interviews but often I didn’t.
Here are the top five things I learned were necessary to make any interview a success.
1. Help them feel comfortable.
Some people are naturals in front of the camera, but about 90% of us are nervous Nellies. Someone who is scared or intimidated will not be capable of putting forth their best.
I always considered my #1 priority to be helping people feel at ease with me, the camera, and the interview process.
I did this largely by assuring them they looked good and sounded great. Honestly, sometimes this was an out-and-out lie, but I said it anyway.
I’d joke about using the special “skinny filter” or say something like, “Now people at home don’t want to always be looking at those skinny models on TV, they’d rather see real people like you and me.”
There. That’s NOT a lie and it would help calm their racing heart. Plus, including myself makes me a sympathetic ally. I ain’t a beauty queen either!
In the world of journalism, you can only go so far comforting your subject, but in business, there are no limits. Assure them that you are on their side. Your job is to make them look good. If you can, let them know that they will have some, or even total control over the final product.
The reason people are scared usually boils down trust and control. They know that you have the power to make them look like an idiotic goon if you so choose, no matter what they actually say during the interview.
Face it, if YOU maintain total control of the production, they’d be foolish to not be nervous. Make them trust you and assure them that they are not your pawn. A calm person is willing to share what’s deep in their heart and mind.
2. A good interview is a conversation, not an interrogation.
Grilling someone police style will clam them up quicker than anything. Ask questions as if you were meeting this person at a party and were fascinated by their work.
Most people LOVE to talk about their interests. My job was to shut up and listen.
Just like when you meet someone at a social event, chances are, if you express a genuine interest in them they will be happy to take the conversation from there.
Especially if I went into an interview blind, my first question would be something extremely broad like, “So Dr. Smith, tell me about your work.” Then I’d listen very carefully and my second question would be whatever seemed logical once they stopped talking. Often, one broad question like that would prompt them to talk for five or ten minutes. Sometimes that was all I needed. Interview over!
Often, my questions were not even questions–they were statements. After listening to someone tell me their woes, I would say something like, “That must have been very difficult for you,” then they would proceed to fill me in on the details. Phrasing question like that helps you look empathetic.
Occasionally, I would share something personal about me. That part would always be cut out, but doing so helped them feel less weird.
Most interviewing advice starts with, “Make a list of questions beforehand.” OK, I agree there is benefit to doing that, especially if you are a beginner. However, nothing bores a listener more than an interviewer who sticks to a prepared list of questions instead of steering the conversation in a logical manner. If you stick to your prepared list, your questions often sound like they’re coming out of left field.
A list of prepared questions is best used as a reminder during the interview about what topics and angles you want to cover. Very rarely would your pre-worded questions sound appropriate stuck into the middle of a conversation. Re-word them on-the-fly for a better flow.
3. Interview the expert with your audience–not you–in mind.
As with all information publishing, interviewing an expert must be done with your audience in mind. Who are you really talking to? The answer to that question determines the language you use and depth of your questions.
Is your audience professional in the subject area? If so, then use the lingo and go deep. If on the other hand you have a laymen audience, avoid lingo and stay general. I’ve interviewed hundreds of doctors and I would often have to ask them to explain things in more simplistic terms. It didn’t matter that I personally understood that myocardial infarction meant a heart attack. I knew my audience probably didn’t.
4. When coming up with questions, always remember to ask who, what, when, where, why and how.
Those six little words are the tenets of journalism and often boil down to everything that can be known about a subject.
Who cares? Who is affected? Who isn’t?
What is it that’s affecting them? Define all aspects of it.
When is it relevant? Give time frames to add perspective.
“Where” can be asked multiple ways. The obvious is, “where did it happen?” The not so obvious is, “where can people go to learn more,” and “where can people go to avoid this?
“Why” is also a multiple facetted little goodie. Why does it happen? Why doesn’t it happen? Why is it important? Why does it happen like that? Why do you say that?
How is this possible? How do you know that? How can people help? How is it all going to affect us?
The more questions you ask of people the easier it becomes. “Really? Tell me more please.”
5. End the interview with, “Is there anything you’d like to add?”
Nine times out of ten, the best answer to the interview would come with that final question.
After someone has explained the big picture, they’ll have all the information swirling in their head and will be capable at that point of summing up the entire subject in a few words. That’s what TV loves, short, sweet and to the point.
As an interviewer, I was well known for continuing the interview for twenty minutes or more based on the answer to what was supposedly my final question. It would often bring up the most interesting aspects, usually ones I hadn’t even considered.
To be a good interviewer, I couldn’t allow my ego to think that I knew everything. THEY were the expert; I just carried around a camera and microphone. There’s no way on earth I can think of every single question and that’s OK. My experts were usually grateful that I allowed them the opportunity to open new avenues. Unless of course I’d worn them out, in which case they would say, “Nope, I think we’ve covered everything.”
Let’s pack up and go home. That was easier than I thought! More fun too.