You see a lot of content. I see a lot of content.
Here’s a real scenario: an author comes out with a new business book and they do the rounds online. Sadly, what we’re all subjected to, is the same (or similar) quotes time and time again. It’s not that the author has nothing original to say. It’s because they are being asked the same questions over and over again. I lived through this – time and time again – back in my music industry days. An artist would come to town, and the record company would sequester them in a hotel suite and subject them to a seemingly never-ending rotation of music journalists throughout the day. Each journalist would be given twenty minutes and the artists rarely had time for a pee break. I didn’t want to be another cog in a PR machine, so I would always try to do something a little different. Create an environment that would get the artist to say new and different things. To make myself memorable in front of them. To rise above the rest. Fast forward to today: a place where brands and individuals are content creators and vying to create something new and relevant at every turn. Here’s the thing: most people who create content are not professionals. They’re copying professionals. And, they’re not doing that great of a job in the copying department. After decades of conducting thousands of interviews, I believe that great content comes from great interviews. Scratch that. Great content comes from great conversations.
10 ways to turn an interview into a conversation:
- Research. Don’t be lazy. Do your research. Everything. Google, YouTube, Twitter and keep digging. The only way to get great at having a conversation with someone, is to know everything about them. If you have to ask someone why they wrote a book, or why they used that book title, you have not done your homework. Use those baseline questions and the way they have already been answered by them to dig deeper. If you don’t research your subject first (and spend a ton of time on it), it shows in the output.
- Speak to others. Ask people you know what they think about your subject. Why they find the topic interesting? Ask people who have already interviewed your subject how it went and what they had wished they had asked them. You will always bring your own biases (positive, negative and neutral) to an interview. Get other people’s perspectives.
- Take notes. Most people create a list of questions. Don’t do this. As you’re doing your research and speaking to other people, take notes. Highlight the important notes. These notes are not to be used in order, they are guideposts for a greater conversation. All too often, people try to get from one question to the next in an attempt to get through all of the questions that they have created. There is zero chance a conversation will happen if this is the way that the conversation is guided. Notes. Not questions.
- Be open-ended. Ask questions that are open-ended. So many people struggle with this. Let’s simplify: open-ended questions are questions that can’t be answered with a "yes" or a "no." The easiest way to think about it is this: only ask questions that start with the words "why" or "how." Questions that start this way can never be answered with a "yes" or "no." Don’t believe me? Try it out on your kids.
- Excite button. I like to start my conversations by talking about something that excites my subject. Back in my music industry days, I would dig and research to find out what hobbies these musicians had outside of work. Whether I was interested in the hobbies or not, I would do some top-line research, and usually start out with something topical about their hobby. You don’t have to be an expert on the subject, but it does help (and it creates a better personal connection), if it’s something that interests you as well.
- Leave space. When the subject is finished speaking, don’t jump all over them with the next topic. Leave some empty space, look at them (just don’t be a psycho about it). Gems. Gems happen when the subject is given some time to think about what they just said. Prompting them with an, "anything else?" can also spur some new insights and thinking.
- It’s a dance. A great conversation is like a dance. The problem is that most interviewers think that they’re the lead. Big mistake. Let the subject lead. Don’t worry about what question you have primed to be next. Let the subject open up a whole new set of doors and alleys for you to walk down and talk about with them. My best interviews are, typically, the ones where the subject leads and, by the end, nothing from my notes were discussed, because everything they led with was just that much more fascinating.
- Get that mic out of my face! This is a more technical point, but if you can remove the feeling of being recorded, it’s that much better. For the most part, I conduct the vast majority of my interviews via Skype (audio only). When that is happening, I ask my subjects to close all of their other applications. I let them know that I need all of the CPU to work for Skype, but I really just want them staring into a blank screen and focusing on their words. If the interview is happening in-person, I do my best to have a recorder either be off to the side, or try to get both of us hooked up with lapel microphones (aka lavs). I find that having handheld mics or headphones or whatever really challenging to get a warm conversation going. On top of that, I prefer to not have anything physical in between myself and the subject. In an ideal world, you want to be facing them, and have your heart open and facing their heart.
- Stay curious. Some subjects are just plain boring. The entire interview is going to crash unless you stay curious. Your energy, enthusiasm and curiosity will be the only thing to revive a conversation with someone who is acting more like a cold, dead fish. Staying curious is the interview equivalent of working it. Work it. Stay curious.
- You’re there to learn. I saw this great quote from Susan Orlean (famed author and staff writer at The New Yorker). She says: "When you’re researching you’re learning. When you’re writing, you’re teaching." Marinate on that one for a while. Even the interview component of the content production is research, so you’re there to learn. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen content creators botch this one up. Learn. Be the student. There is plenty of time to teach when you move into the content creation phase.
Over to you. What do you think it takes to create a great interview?