Thoughts on the practice of interviewing: the one on one interview

How can we create the best interviews?

For years I’ve been interviewing people in various ways.  That means interviews over Skype, phone, email, and in person for various research projects.  It means the 100+ live video interviews I’ve done with the Future Trends Forum.  It also means panels that I’ve moderated, which function like interviews in some ways.

I’ve also been interviewed myself, in all of these ways.  And I watch/listen to/read interviews as a consumer.

So what have I found that works?

I’ll start with the one on one experience, then add the social context in a followup post.


Philosophically, I believe interviews are about the subject, not the interviewer.  Much as I enjoy reading the kind of discussion one sees in French intellectual interviews, where both participants have roughly equal time, I consider that a different experience.  Call it a discussion, or a mini panel.  In contrast, I think it’s best for an interviewer to remove themselves as much as possible from the exchange.

Think of it this way.  The interview opens a space for conversation.  That’s not automatically an easy thing to do, especially in a culturally fraught moment like we’re enjoying in 2018.  The interview also provides a space for a person – the interviewee, or the subject – to express themselves, to unfold their thinking, to explore questions and topics.  Again, that isn’t easy.  The interviewer has a fierce responsibility to ensure that the space works, that the interviewee can productively and safely inhabit that site.  Ultimately, I think, hosting an interview requires embracing an ethos of care.

Practical preparation: this might sound obvious, but do research the person you’re going to talk with.  I’m still surprised by interviews where the interviewer clearly hasn’t read what an author has written, or pays no attention to their current thinking.  Being able to interview someone is a privileged position, an unusual window into another human being.  Take that seriously.  Take them seriously.  Research them!

Generate a raft of questions ahead of time.  Make sure they cover a range of topics and approaches, not just a narrow suite of probes.  That way you’re ready to change up if one angle doesn’t pan out.  You can also elicit the subject’s thoughts from different perspectives and on multiple facets of the topic.  Personally, I tend to overprepare, and thereby often end up with twice or three times the questions I actually get in.  (ENTJ here.)   That’s ok.  Generating them is good practice, and the results give me a lot of flexibility in the interview.   I also like giving subjects some of the questions beforehand, so they can think on them.  Not all – that can be daunting.

Keep the questions somewhere easily accessible.  It can be paper, a tablet, wherever.  Recently I’ve been using Mac laptops and desktops, and that platform’s Notes application suits me just fine.

Structure an agenda.  The details of this depend on one’s personality and style.  If you’re just starting to interview people, you’ll probably discover you have an interviewing persona which emerges through practice, much like instructors develop a teaching persona.  For myself, if I’m doing a live and/or recorded event, I like to prepare a pretty detailed timeline, down to 5- or even 3-minute increments (remember, ENTJ)… but then I feel comfortable departing from that timeline, as the conversation flows.  That structure gives me a good sense of how to organize and shift topics.  Sharing it (or an abstract) with the subject gives them a better feel for how things will proceed.

2. During

During the interview: right at the start, empty yourself.  I know that might sound weirdly Zen or Newage, but I mean it.  Remove as many of your desires to pontificate as you can.  This is all about the other person.  Meditate or deep breathe if you have to.  Remember, your questions and notes are safely available elsewhere.  You can refer to them easily.

Jeff Young and Bryan

Jeff Young, being awesome.

At the same time, do everything you can to make the subject comfortable.  Being interviewed isn’t necessarily a welcome or comfortable feeling; there’s a reason police use the term “to interview” when meeting with suspects.  And some people are just uncomfortable, awkward, or simply bad at talking.  Make them comfortable.  The interview is about them.  The better and more confident they feel, the better the results will be.

A crucial way of doing that is using your body.  If the interview is visible (on stage, on video) there are long stretches them you cannot speak, because the subject is talking.  Then use body language to respond.  I mean facial expressions, gestures with your hands, your body’s posture.  Change them up to indicate surprise, humor, and above all attention.  Use nonverbal sounds: grunts, “mm hm”s, chuckles, breath intakes.  Smile (this is important for me, as my facial hair can intimidate the sad segment of the population that doesn’t appreciate hirsute achievement.) Sit up, shift your frame to one side, lean forward, lean back, etc.  This is quiet and subtle stuff, but can make a huge different to your subject, making them feel heard.  It can also convey to the audience that this is a meaningful event to you.  I shudder to think of bad interviews wherein the interviewer clearly signaled their inattention, either through lack of response or perfunctory reactions.

Use the interview space.  If the subject has a venue (you’re in their office, or Skyping into their home, or they’re traveling) see if you can reference it.  Perhaps their weather is exceptional, or there’s a revealing bit of art, or they have a challenging technology setup.  This can make them feel more comfortable and/or present.  It also fleshes out the person, giving them a greater presence for your audience.  If your own space is available (it’s in your office, etc.), use that.  Make informal, light comparisons.

Manage the tempo.  Much like public speaking, many people will have the temptation to go too quickly when interviewing.  I’ve seen interviewers press too hard on people, not giving them time to think or express themselves.  Be patient.  The questions and topics you’ve been thinking of might not be in the subject’s mind at that second.  They are also experts (which is why you’re interviewing them, right?), and are accessing a wealth of knowledge.  Give that time to process.  I find one weird trick is to let the subject finish a complete sentence before I ask the next question.  If what they’re saying is sentence fragment, they probably have another thought right there, just about to surface.

The flip side of managing tempo is being careful not to let the energy drain away.  Think of your audience, and try not to narcotize them.  The interview situation is inherently dramatic, but it can drift into silence if the subject is bored/very thoughtful and quiet/not happy with your questions.  So if the subject is a high energy person, keep up with them.  Make sure you have your other questions and topics in mind, so you can quickly jump to them.  And keep an eye on the clock.  If you have a schedule limitation, stick to it, and be sure to get your most pressing topics in before the clock runs out.

Right at the start take care to introduce things well.  Present yourself to the interviewee, reminding them of some generalities (timeline, topic, audience).  If it’s being recorded or conducted live, introduce the person you’ll be speaking with and the topic.  It sounds obvious, but this framing fulfills a formal function many people expect.  And it helps people situate themselves.

Active listening: I’m ambivalent about the practice, as it sometimes strikes me as condescending or overkill.  But some active listening elements are very useful for interviewing.  My favorite bit is paraphrasing what a subject has said.  Sometimes I do this immediately after they’re spoken, to indicate my appreciation for an important statement, or to clarify (not all subjects are effective communicators).  Always I circle back in the interview to link up different thoughts, pushing for comparison and synthesis.  For me an interview isn’t entirely linear, but rather a kind of matrix, with opportunities to connect all parts.

At the end, be sure to close things out formally.  You might want to recap some highlights, such as the points you think were most salient or surprising.  Definitely thank your interviewee.  If it’s live or recorded, speak to the interview’s fate (“this will be available on our streaming server as a podcast”).  If it’s part of a series, inform the audience about what’s coming next.

3. Afterwards

After the session: celebrate it!  I’m a serious social media user, so I always tweet out quick reflections – and thanks – right afterwards.  Contact your subject to thank them for their time and contributions to your work.

Depending on what happens to documentation, be sure to share it with the interviewee and other audiences when ready.  That is, if it’s for a book, thank the subject when it hits press or market.  If it’s on iTunes, share the link.

…and that’s it for now.  What do you think?  What makes an interview work for you as interviewer, interviewee, or audience member?

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4 Responses to Thoughts on the practice of interviewing: the one on one interview

  1. Howard Rheingold says:

    In the olden days, when I used an audio recorder with written notes as backup, I found that the way I took notes could silently steer the interviewee. I simply wrote furiously when the interviewee was saying something interesting to me, and wrote slowly or not at all when they weren’t saying something interesting to me. It isn’t possible to do that kind of signalling without the pen and notebook.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That is a subtle feedback loop. Perhaps there’s a digital echo in typing notes, or live tweeting.

      Does this happen in therapy, I wonder?

      (Ever see _Hot Fuzz_? Terrific comedy, so see it for that. But there’s a cute scene where a cop disarms an obnoxious guy by writing notes.)

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful review of the interviewer’s art.
    I interview artists twice a month for my show Viz City, an arts review program for KLCC, NPR for Oregonians. I have learned to shut up while they are talking so my voice doesn’t burn across theirs in the editing room.
    Preparation is so important, especially when I am not familiar with the medium of their expression. I view their art online and often ask an expert to look at it, too, and suggest questions to me.
    I work hard to put them at ease. I am always entering their studio, so delighted appreciation and a tour of their space sets an on-topic mood.
    I am always after a key story and will ask, “Tell me the story of…”
    The answer is inevitably a denial that there is a story.
    But I am patient.
    Eventually their subconscious can’t resist offering up a story, and I’ll hear,”Well, maybe there IS a story…” and bingo—there it is, the living heart of the interview.

    I will be spending three months in Europe this summer as European Arts Correspondence for Viz City, broadcasting my show twice a month from wherever I happen to be. That will include video, photos, and posts for the show’s blog.
    When I fell in love with digital storytelling. I never dreamed I’d end up in radio…

    Thank you for this valuable post on the art of the interview.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Sandy, thank you so much for sharing this experience. I had no idea.

      How long is each episode of your program?

      Asking about a story – ah, I love that process.

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