7 Steps To A Better Interview

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Candidly, there’s a lot more than seven, but its a start.

I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve been involved with since the mid-eighties, but it has got to be in the thousands. This is not meant to brag. It’s a fact. Just look at my Six Pixels of Separation – The Mirum Podcast (which has been running for over a decade with close to 570 episodes) or Groove – The No Treble Podcast (which has been happening for over two years). I spend a lot of time on either side of the mic. I’ve interviewed rock stars, business leaders, marketing experts, bestselling authors, and more for close to thirty years. I’ve also been interviewed countless times over the years for TV, print, radio, online, etc… The only thing that I love more than a great conversation is sharing the content of that conversation with an audience. Last week, Mark Schaefer published an article titled, 5 Steps to conduct a superior podcast interview, and he was kind enough to name me as one of “the best interviewers” (Thanks, Mark!). With that, I thought I would add on to his article with what I think makes for a great interview.

7 steps to a better interview:

  1. It’s not an interview. Kill that word. You’re not trying to interview anyone. You’re trying to have a conversation. You’re trying to connect. Think about it less as something that has to turn into a piece of content and more like a coffee date. If you’re going to waste anyone’s time (including your own) for a coffee, make it count. Interviewing them won’t make it count. Having an awesome conversation will be memorable, valuable and something that everyone will want to make happen again. If you don’t like coffee, consider this a first date. The idea is to get to a second date (because it was so engaging that they want one).
  2. Create familiarity. Going in cold sucks. It puts the person leading the conversation (aka – The Interviewer) at a deficit. Familiarity can be anything from a mutual friend to a shared hobby. It can be something as simple as their interest in a particular sports team or author. You have to dig a little harder to find out this information, but it’s usually readily available. LinkedIn can also be of enormous help if they guest is not a major celebrity (most people have a profile and connections).
  3. Don’t have any questions ready. This one really freaks people out, but I never ever have a list of questions. At most, I have a few lines written down about areas of interest that I would like to discuss/explore. Remember, it’s not an interview… it’s a conversation. Remember, it’s a coffee… not an inquisition. Your job before the conversation is to do the heavy lifting (aka – the research). Dig deep, read a lot, take notes and prep. Learn about them. Know them. Then, when it’s time for the conversation, be like a pipe that is about to burst with areas of conversation about the person and their work.
  4. Take notes. Whether it’s in person or remotely, I always have a large notepad right by my side to take notes. As the conversation blossoms, they should provide new areas of conversation or concepts that need to be expanded upon. Don’t be afraid to take notes. But, do not have the notes as a barrier between you and your guest. Don’t refer to the notes and create moments of awkward pause (no second dates happen this way). By the end of a good conversation, I usually have a page or two of notes. Ultimately, that winds up looking a lot like a list of questions that most journalists use to guide the conversation. Ultimately, it provides a good reference when creating the content that supports the conversation.
  5. Never interrupt. It’s not what you think. This is, actually, a technical piece of advice – especially if you (or someone else) has to transcribe the conversation. Listening back and hearing all of your “ummms,” “ahhhhs” and “hang on a second…” will not only make it hard to transcribe the audio, but will also make you realize just how annoying we humans can be when we don’t let others finish their thoughts and sentences. It’s normal to get excited about something that is said and jump in. Resist temptation. It will not only make the transcription better, it will allow your guest to finish their thought.
  6. Give it a beat. Most guests have been asked just about everything under the sun. The person leading the conversation may think that they have something new to ask, but it is rarely the case. So, where does the gold and unique aspects of the conversation come from? My experience is that the best juices of the conversation happen after the guest has said everything, and has a chance (moment of silence) to think about what they just said. Anything that comes after phrases like, “on second thought…,” “now that I think about it…” or “you know what…” is where the gold typically lies. It’s not easy to perfect this technique, and it can be awkward if you don’t know how to pull it off, but try leaving a beat of silence after the guest has finished their thought. Priming it with, “is there anything else you would like to add?” might get the person leading the conversation somewhere, but it will be nowhere near as good as when the guest goes down that road on their own. A beat of silence is often the lubricant for this.
  7. Push back kindly. I don’t like aggressive conversations or those who are contrarian just to get a rise out of their guests. For me, it often comes off as disrespectful. That’s a bad brand to have as a content creator (for the most part… but some journalists have made a living being that persona). Still, I believe that if someone has published a book, produced an album or put anything out into the world, that they should be able to defend their work. It’s fine to push back, but push back kindly. Don’t just provoke. If you have a reason to push back, make sure you provide it. Lines like, “in my experience,” or “in the client work that we’ve done” often sets the stage and enables the guest to understand that their insights may not be your experience and you want your audience to know why. You’re not trying to have the guest validate their work, you’re trying to have the guest inspire those who are listening. 

In fact, these are not just tactics for a great interview… they can be used for meetings, family conversations and more. 

What tips would you add to this list?