Tutorial: how to interview like a pro business journalist, part 2

interview,business information,interviewee,tutorial,writingWelcome to the second in a series of HTWB tutorials to help you learn and use new skills brilliantly. This time we look at Part 2 of interviewing techniques – not for job seekers or hard-nosed door-stepping reporting, but for business interviews.

In Part 1 of this tutorial we covered:

  1. Three key reasons why you will find it useful to know how to interview for information purposes
  2. Forget making it up
  3. Employment-type or journalistic interview techniques don’t work
  4. Forget scripts: they always make an interview seem false and insincere
  5. What other issues are there to consider?
  6. Preparing your questions
  7. How those questions will shake down
  8. Leave your questions loose
  9. The warm up: an essential part you must get right
  10. Some further tips on how to approach a F2F or phone interview
  11. Starting the interview
  12. Phrasing your questions

Specific types of question

Sometimes you will want to build up enthusiasm in your interviewee, so that the response will come over as inspiring and motivating. No matter how much you have prepared the interviewee in the warm up, usually you will still need to generate enthusiasm in your preamble. Let’s suppose you want a shining endorsement of the new training course from the training manager…

The wrong way to question her/him:

YOU: Why is this course so good?
INTERVIEWEE: It’s good because it has been designed by some of the best retail experts in the United States, and it uses all the most modern training techniques.

A bit boring, maybe? How about this:

YOU: (smiling enthusiastically) Mr Bloggs, I understand this new course really is revolutionary and is going to make a tremendous difference to the way staff perform out there with the customer. But briefly, what would you say makes it so special?
INTERVIEWEE: It uses all that new training techniques. They’re fantastic – proven by some of the top retail training experts in the States, who designed the course in the first place. It’s miles more effective than anything we’ve done before. Truly outstanding.

Slippery slopes: pressing the point

There may come a time when the interviewee tries to evade a question. Usually you will have got a hint of that possibility during the warm up.

But sometimes the harsh reality of an interview situation will make her/him think twice about committing her/himself to something that may not necessarily meet with her/his Chairman’s approval, or may make her/him look a little bit less than perfect.

You may need a definitive question to get around this one, so your interview outcome is good. Here you might need to lean on the interviewee a bit…

YOU: Why is this new training course so much better than anything you’ve done previously?
INTERVIEWEE: Well of course, I didn’t mean to suggest that previous training courses weren’t very good. They were all excellent. It’s just that this one is more up to date. You know, it uses more modern techniques.
YOU: Of course, I appreciate that Mr Bloggs. But you did say that this new course is much more effective than anything your company had done before. Now, just why is that?
INTERVIEWEE: It’s more effective because it’s based on customer needs that are right up to date. The whole face of retail has changed a lot in the last few years and I suppose earlier training courses were based on customer needs that existed a few years ago – rather than those of today and tomorrow. This new course prepares staff not only for customer service now, but for the future as well.

So by going in there a bit harder, but in a nice, positive way, you have allowed the interviewee to get out of a potentially embarrassing spot (potentially being rude about earlier training courses) and make a very useful point.

Return questions

Something else you may have to do is return to a question and try again. This may be for a number of reasons, for example:

  • In the case of a video or audio recording, there may have been some background noise or other glitch while the interviewee was speaking – that can spoil the recording’s quality
  • The interviewee may have misinterpreted your question and answered inaccurately
  • S/he may have wandered off-topic and talked about something else (don’t be tempted to interrupt, however, as that “something else” might turn out to be useful information.)

Some interviewers are hard-hearted and just blast in with something like “I’m sorry, can we try that one again?” However I believe it’s a mistake, because if the interviewee feels s/he has made a mistake it may unsettle her/him. I prefer to rephrase the question and ask it later on, so the interviewee isn’t aware that it’s a repeat. Here’s an example:

YOU: (original question) How much time and effort do you expect staff to put into this training course?
YOU: (return question) As I understand it, Mr Bloggs, the company provides all the hardware and software needed to complete the course. But in term of personal input, just what do staff need to contribute to make it work for them?

The unforeseen response

interview,business information,techniques,interviewee,writing,tutorial

Know what to do when an interviewee takes you by surprise

Once in a while you may find yourself up against an interviewee who is either more experienced at giving interviews than you think, or else suddenly finds fresh confidence and responds to a question in a way that takes you totally by surprise. Some people may say one thing about a particular issue in the warm up, and then say something completely different in the interview itself.

This is not the end of the world in an interview that is not being recorded. However in one you want to use for video or audio purposes, it’s important that you don’t falter. Here’s what to do:

  • Listen carefully to the unforeseen response and if you can, develop the next question out of it.
  • If you can’t, move on to the next question on your list, provided that it isn’t likely to stray into the same ground as the unforeseen response.
  • If it does, jump to the next question along and then, if necessary, use a return question later on to cover the question missed.

Although interviewing for information purposes isn’t as much of a tennis match as an employment or reportage  interview, it’s still important that you – as the interviewer – keep control of the whole thing. If the interviewee feels that you have lost control (whether by accident or because s/he has deliberately wrong-footed you) in the end the quality of the interview will suffer.

Closing the interview

At the end of an interview it can be very useful to pose one or two summary questions.

Often this is an excellent opportunity to obtain succinct “sound bite” quotes, and can also provide short quotes that can be used effectively throughout a document or web page.

One issue, though, is that in asking a summary question you’re likely to repeat (or nearly repeat) a question you have asked the interviewee earlier on. What you must remember here is that interviewees aren’t stupid. So if you just ask her/him a summary question without a suitable preamble, s/he probably will find it odd and may not respond as you would like her/him to.

Some examples: first, the wrong way…

YOU: So, briefly, what is it that makes this training course so different from previous courses your company has run?
INTERVIEWEE: Well, we’ve already covered that point earlier on. I think I outlined the main benefits then.

No good. Try this…

YOU: Mr Bloggs, earlier on we went into the advantages of the new course in some detail. But very briefly now, in summary, what would you say is the main benefit of the new course?

(Don’t worry, by the way. Although you’ve asked for one main benefit, in these circumstances you’ll almost certainly get more than one, but only the important ones. If you ask for all the main benefits you’ll get a long answer which at this point you do not need.)

INTERVIEWEE: The main benefit is that the course is designed to help staff meet the needs of customers both today, and tomorrow. And it helps staff to perform their jobs better, which is good for them – more satisfaction, and better promotion prospects.

Some further points

If your interview is being recorded, it’s important that you maintain eye contact with the interviewee and acknowledge their words with nods, smiles and body language. Whatever you do, though, avoid saying anything or even grunting approvingly while the interviewee is speaking, because that will ruin the soundtrack of the interview.

Even if your interview is not being recorded, never interrupt your interviewee. If they go off on an undesirable track wait until they stop to draw breath, then politely turn the conversation to the topic and question in hand.

Be sure that whatever else you do, you listen to every word the interviewee says. Often you can create very useful new questions on the strength of something s/he has said, leading to new sources of information you hadn’t thought of before.

Never agree to interview someone if her/his boss or your boss wants to watch and/or sit in on the interview. The vocal presence of any third party – whoever that is – is bound to interfere with your concentration and that of your interviewee, especially if the third party has the ability to make you or her/him nervous. Even if you’re in no position to do so, fight tooth and claw against it – throw your handbag on the floor or your toys out of your pram – and swear it’s all in the best interest of corporate homogeneity. (It is.)

If your interview is being recorded and the interviewee has little or no experience of such things, try to keep the clutter and equipment out of her/his sight. You can’t avoid having a camera peering over your shoulder if it’s a video shoot, but if it’s audio you can keep the recorder on a discreet low table or even in your hand. And if it’s the sort of equipment that needs to be monitored, get someone else to do it behind the interviewee. Don’t fiddle with equipment yourself in full view of the interviewee.

Doing interviews by email

These days I often interview people via email as they are too busy to invite me into their sanctuaries with a recorder and I’m quite happy not to drive umpty-dump miles to do so.

If you do this, be sure to use the same principles that I have outlined here. In other words do the “warm up” in a preliminary email, and follow that with your selection of questions phrases exactly as you would phrase them in person. Write them with space beneath to make it easy for the interviewee to respond. For more on this – check out this article of mine here on HTWB.

Interviewing someone you know well

This is final thought but one that has had caught me unawares in a couple of interviews – and I have conducted about 2,000 in my time, so this is not a common one, OK!

It’s probably more useful if I recount one of my own experiences, so here it is.

I was senior writer and script editor on a series of educational TV programs about tourism, and needed to set up one episode whereby we dramatized a marketing campaign for a fictitious tourist resort. As budget was very limited I enlisted the help of three old friends who, in fairness, were extremely well qualified to be the “professionals” I needed to interview.

The first two were well used to presenting – one was deputy creative director of an international advertising agency, and the other was CEO of an international travel organization (who had also been a DJ for a Californian radio station and really did have the gift of the gab.)

So, my interviews with these two went superbly well. That was because we were all “acting” – me in my role as interviewer, them in their roles as advertising and travel marketing experts respectively.

Interviewee #3 was the problem. A friend for 25 years, he is a brilliant PR man who had always been independent and is one of the most sincere people I know. But when the camera rolled and I went into my “acting” interviewer mode, he couldn’t handle it. He kept reverting and relating to me as I am in our long-standing friendship, questioning my questions, and dithering about in an alarming manner. We got enough footage to achieve our objectives in the end but it was a fiendish challenge for me.

Moral of the story? Try to avoid interviewing people you know very well. It may be ironic, but people do “perform” better for someone they don’t know, or at least someone they don’t know very well.

And that’s it. What questions do you have about interviewing for business information? Please share them – and your own experiences and thoughts – with us here.