If you’re writing anything or telling any story, at some point you’ll need to talk to someone critical to the project, right? Even if it’s just while prepping a pitch or planning an agenda, anyone in business will have to conduct an interview for information, at least occasionally.
Having to ask questions can make people uncomfortable. So can talking to another person who knows more than we do, outranks us or has something we need, even if they want to share it.
But given that we all need to do it, we might as well learn how.
I was a newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years, and regularly interviewed all kinds of people about all kinds of things. Outside the newsroom, I’ve met countless smart, charming, articulate people who freeze with nervousness before conducting an interview with a friendly colleague, client or executive — or make common mistakes that lead to missed opportunities.
Here are a few tricks anyone can try for more productive interviews at work, out in the world and maybe even at home. Remember, you’re probably walking into a conversation, not a confrontation.
1. Have an agenda. Know what you need for the meeting to be a success, and keep that goal in mind. Write it at the top of your notepad. That way, you can let the conversation be spontaneous and still always have a handy focal point.
2. Ask open-ended questions. They encourage people to talk rather than merely give an answer. Be sure to listen for surprises that warrant follow-up questions.
3. Ask follow-up questions. This is why email interviews are so stale, and why a real conversation is so much more fruitful than a questionnaire – even one delivered orally.
4. Ask direct questions. Sometimes, you need a fact confirmed, a yes/no response – or at least, an “I’ll get back to you on that.”
5. Make boundaries clear. Be transparent about your needs and deadlines, and what you’re willing to do next. Know your obligations and commitments.
6. Try it three times. If you’re not getting the kind of answer you need to a question, ask it again twice, in different ways. “What would you like to see happen before you commit any money to the project?” might get a different answer than, “Bill says he’ll commit 10 percent if you will.” Which might get a different answer than “Why are you letting another department get out front on this?”
7. Maintain normal eye contact. Smile when appropriate. Nod. You’re having a conversation, after all.
8. Say, “Go on” when you need more explanation, when you sense the other person wants to continue – or when you just need time to think.
9. Say, “I don’t understand – could you explain that again?” Remember, there is no stupid question. Better to ask and get it right than be embarrassed and get it wrong. Try saying, “Explain it to me like I’m a 6-year-old,” or “Tell me like you would tell your neighbor” – that is, high-level and free of jargon.
10. Stop talking. Do you feel awkward if a conversation goes quiet for a moment? Don’t. Be confident, let the silence linger and see what happens. It’s not a game of chicken. It’s giving the conversation some breathing room. Unless it is a game of chicken, and then it’s a great little tool.
11. Know when to wrap it up. Respect the appointment and the other person’s time, but give him or her a chance to keep it going a bit.
12. Finally: Ask if you can be in touch later if you think of another question or need to clarify something. Even if you don’t call again, the person will appreciate your openness.
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