Get what you need: Interview pro tips from a journalist

  • By Team CSI
  • |
  • Aug 29 2016
Categories: |Toolbox

Real users can be really tricky

Much of the research that goes into content strategy depends upon our ability to extract from audiences and stakeholders the information we need to make educated decisions. Such is the blessing and curse of user research: it’s based on real users.

Interviews are intended to uncover these insights, but they’re not always straightforward. In fact, they can be very challenging at times. When you’re face-to-face with another person, or even one-on-one over the phone, your presence, voice, and situational context all matter. And then there’s the pressure. If you’re not used to regularly interfacing with people, the stress of guiding a 30-minute (or even 60-minute) interview can seriously impact your composure and ability to focus on getting good results.

This is not a beginner’s guide to interviewing. There are terrific resources out there already that can get you started on interviewing techniques (such as Erika Hall’s guide on A List Apart from 2013). If you’ve never conducted interviews before, that’s a great place to start.

But if you’ve tried your hand at an interview or two and are still having trouble getting usable information, sometimes it’s best to turn to new, different sources for inspiration on different ways to handle your audience and stakeholder interviews.

Turning to a journalist: Brooke Gladstone

brooke gladstone with book the influencing machine

Brooke Gladstone (image courtesy of Rappaport Center)

Brooke Gladstone is the host of long-running WNYC show On The Media and a pedigreed news journalist who regularly speaks on the relationship of the news media to the mass public. When it comes to interviews, she’s conducted hundreds, if not thousands.

In short: she’s a bonafide expert on tough interviews.

Of course, the interviews she conducts are quite different than audience or stakeholder interviews, with a different set of pressures. She needs to encourage political figures to spill the beans on their true agendas, typically enshrouded in misleading rhetoric and sleight of hand. To succeed, she needs an arsenal of tricks to punch through the walls her interview subjects put up.

Interviewing pro tips

In January 2016, Brooke divulged some interviewing pro-tips on the Longform Podcast. These tips are in many cases specific to interviewing political, cultural, and media subjects, so we’ve adapted them here for stakeholder and audience research.

#1 Do not be afraid of silence

When it comes to interviewing, silence truly is golden.

This tip is so simple it feels obvious, but it can be so hard to do. Humans naturally want to fill the dead air with some kind of thought continuation, but this will oftentimes interrupt your interview subject’s mode of thought and give them too much to grapple on to. Before long, you may find yourself suggesting the appropriate responses – obliterating your interviewer objectivity.

It’s unnerving at first, but give it a try. Let your interview pauses become pregnant and marvel as your subjects continue to fill that silence with more thoughts than you initially expected they had. It’s a surefire way to turn a potential interviewing weakness into your greatest weapon.

Interviewing pro tip from a journalist: Do not be afraid of silence. Click To Tweet

#2 Ask a question twice. Or three times. Or four times. Or five times.

While Brooke can hammer her subjects with the same questions repeatedly, for audience and stakeholder interviews, we’re more likely to incite frustration with our interviewees and have them shut down on us if we keep on the same thread for too long.

To modify this technique, try keeping your interview questions in front of you and annotate the questions you feel were inadequately answered. After pursuing another line of questions for a bit, return to your initial question and change the phrasing to get slightly more specific. Once the interview subject has a little space from their initial answer, they may be more inclined to return to the topic with an example or some deeper thought, when in the first moment they may have felt a short answer would do.

Varying how hard you push in the moment with giving the user some space to think and come back to questions can open new windows into the subject’s thought process and help you get a feel for the way they consider a question.

#3 Always ask for examples (and then wait for them)

If an interview subject’s responses are lacking in useful specificity, examples are the way to go. If an interviewee can solidify his/her ideas with a concrete example, that will give you additional context to ask about to continue chipping away at the core truth you’re driving for.

But of course, it’s important to remember Rule #1 – when you ask for examples, wait for them to arrive. Most people don’t have them ready until they do some deep thinking.

#4 Don’t be afraid to start over again

Brooke’s tip here can help shape the general narrative of an interview, which is especially important when that interview is being recorded and broadcasted on the radio and internet. Your interviewees don’t have that worry, so it’s much less important that you ensure their responses follow a sequential logic.

However, you may have a series of interview questions that only make sense when asked in a row. Or you may have a question that is so big and so complex, that it takes several followups to get where you need to go. In these cases, if the interview subject completely misses the mark, follow Brooke’s advice – stop, explain what you’re looking for, and start over.

#5 ALWAYS thank the person for their time

In fact, not only should you thank the interviewee for their time both at the onset and conclusion of the interview, you should also plan to spend a few minutes contextualizing why the interview is important for the subject him/herself.

For stakeholders, this typically has to do with your intention to improve things within the organization, creating a business context in which everybody wins.

For audiences, they are the ultimate consumers of the content you’re reshaping. Even if they are one-time customers and unlikely to continue a relationship with the company, people will be surprisingly generous with their goodwill to improve the content experience for future customers and peers. You should explain to them that the interview is critical in understanding their needs, where things went well, and where they went wrong to ensure they and audiences like them receive an improved experience in the future.

#6 Elicit honesty by being honest

Of all Brooke’s tips, this is the least “teachable,” but one of the most important.

The more human you can make yourself to an interview subject, the more likely they are to behave as a human back to you. Customers in particular may have unfair assumptions about robotic focus groups and market research they glean from TV and the media. Overcoming these assumptions must be a priority from the very start of an interview.

When you know the rules, break the rules

Many of the beginner’s tips, like maintaining eye contact and practicing “active listening” Erika Hall lists, stem from the notion that humans respond best to other humans. While you shouldn’t dwell on your own experiences too much in the course of an interview since you need to maintain your objectivity, you should also not shy away from telling a small, but personal, anecdote if it’s contextually relevant and increases your relatability to the interviewee.

After all, the best rules are made to be broken. When you feel like you’ve got a handle on your interviewing style, skirting your own rules may sometimes be the best course of action.

Interviewing pro tip: When you know the rules, you can break the rules. Click To Tweet

Further reading

From research to content tools: in-person interviews and focus groups

Overcoming 5 sneaky pitfalls in audience and stakeholder interviews

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