What do hugely popular electronic music artists, business owners, cybersecurity specialists, coaches, entrepreneurs, product managers, software developers, investors, and even a Master Whiskey Taster have in common?
At some point over the last 10+ years, I asked them the best questions I could.
With every interview I did, I unwittingly developed a core skill that has improved my life in more ways than I ever anticipated. What started as a passion transformed into one of the cornerstones of my work.
I can’t remember when it started or how, but I find good interviews captivating, their power to reveal, connect, and inspire almost boundless. Minds colliding, world views under debate, people opening up in ways they’ve never done before – it’s all quite magical to me.
For more than a decade, I’ve been cultivating this passion. I gradually turned it into one of my (not-so-secret) tactics to create content with heart, strategy, and purpose. Content that builds relationships and genuinely helps. Content that triggers a-ha! moments.
My first high-profile interview was with James E. Grunig, PR theorist, Professor Emeritus for the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. My latest one was with Dr. Ana Iorga, a fascinating neuroscientist. Dozens of experiences that made my life richer and more rewarding fill the space between these two conversations. From the feedback I got, I know at least some of the people I interviewed feel the same. 🙂
Nothing can replace talking to people if you want to create content that speaks to their true needs and desires. If you want to develop this ability and explore how it can help you grow across the board, stick around for this series! You might just discover ways to do better work and get more satisfaction from it, all while meeting great people along the way.
I learned how to get people to open up
Doing a good interview means having a great conversation. Plain and simple. And you can’t have that without trust.
As an interviewee, you have to trust that the person who asks you delicate questions is genuinely interested in your story. You have to trust that you can share more nuanced, personal aspects of your work and life. You must be sure your opinions and concerns won’t be taken out of context and misrepresented.
To have this intimate conversation, you, the interviewer, need to bridge the gap of having no prior context or relationship. The only way to do it is through empathy. If you genuinely care about that person’s perspective or the topic they’ve mastered, show them! Come up with thoughtful questions they’ve never been asked before. Use follow-up questions to prove you’re not there to tick things off your checklist.
Learn how to let the conversation flow naturally. Give them space to answer, without rushing to the next thing on your list that’s completely disconnected from what they just talked about.
To convey both trust and empathy, you need to be fully present. If the interviewee feels you’re going through a series of questions, they’ll provide answers in line with that. If they feel you’re only there to get it done, they’ll pick up on it and never truly open up or provide more than the standard replies they’ve given 1000 times before. If they feel your goal is just to get something juicy and scandalous from them, they’ll feel exploited and become defensive.
The year is 2020. Ash has blocked out the sun. My friends are evacuating out of fire zones. Pants are a distant memory. A podcaster asks me over Zoom, “So what’s it like to be a woman in tech?”
— Eva (@evacide) September 9, 2020
For example, a Greek artist I once interviewed told me: “you’re the first one to actually ask me about my music!” He’d already been through more than a few interviews where various journalists only wanted to know about his love life. Imagine how that felt for him.
Don’t exploit someone simply because they accepted to give you an interview. Don’t go into it thinking you’re doing them a favor. Like all relationships, good interviews involve reciprocity.
An interview is a unique opportunity to explore someone’s mindset, their perspective on their industry/specialty/life. They’re a chance to connect with someone based on your mutual interest in a particular topic. Treasure it!
Since an interview is a conversation, you’ll need to engage your interviewee with thought-provoking questions to get meaningful answers. Let’s see how you can do that.
[bctt tweet=”The 3 things you need to get people to open up for an interview: empathy, trust, being fully present. Here’s how to use them & what to avoid:” username=”andrazaharia”]
I discovered how to use the value of context
Interviews are an incredibly powerful way to understand which context elements made an impact on the person you’re talking to. Some of the factors that can reveal stories and inflection points include:
- where they grew up
- the challenges they faced in their environment
- the opportunities that came with moving to another city/country
- how important relationships in their lives evolved, etc.
For example, customer development interviews reveal how your product or service fits into your customer’s life and routine. Depending on their context, they might perceive its value in a very different way than you think.
During a job interview, gauging the candidate’s context can highlight specific qualities that make them a better fit for a different role than they applied for. Alternatively, context might reveal their leadership capabilities.
No matter their format, interviews are a window into someone else’s life which, for me, is always a privilege and a chance to learn.
Context illuminates different sides of ourselves, our abilities, and our mindset.
To harness its potential, we must see the context from as many different angles as possible. Just like a photographer uses light to reveal facial expressions, so we, as communicators, can use questions to the same effect.
I understood the power of good questions
Asking questions is one of the most powerful ways to learn. However, I haven’t always known this. Being an introvert, it took me a while to move from asking questions in my head to saying them out loud, especially to people I admired and found intimidating.
Back in the day when we didn’t have social media, high performers, business people, and celebrities didn’t seem so approachable as they do now. To break through my shell and discover the fantastic opportunities that interviews bring, my excitement and passion for a topic had to overpower my fear of sounding/looking stupid in front of people that blew my mind.
With each question I asked, I gained a bit more confidence and fed my curiosity a bit more. Although I heard it many times over, the phrase “that’s a good question!” still feels good. And now I can tell the difference between a genuine compliment and the same phrase used just to buy a little more time to think about the answer.
A good question can change a lot of things.
It can change perspective.
It can help reframe things and reveal an answer.
It can kindle change.
It can trigger an epiphany.
It can inspire a solution.
It can create focus and clarity.
It can create empathy and connection.
It can boost self-confidence (for both the interviewer and the interviewee) in a “wow, I didn’t know I had that in me!” kind of way.
A good question can unlock potential in a surprising and electrifying way. It can help us make unexpected connections – surprising not just others, but sometimes even ourselves.
In contrast, a bad question can alienate, create distance, make people defensive.
Here’s an example from Shonda Rhimes, a TV producer, screenwriter, and author. She is also the showrunner of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and many other wildly successful productions:
“I cannot count the number of times some nice reporter has placed a little battered silver recorder in front of my face, flicked it on, and, with a kind smile, asked me what I call the Big Questions: How do I manage work and home? What tips do I have for working moms? What is my secret to finding balance in a busy world?
I get asked the Big Questions in almost EVERY SINGLE INTERVIEW I do. I hate the Big Questions. I hate being asked the Big Questions ALMOST as being asked the Diversity Question – “Why is diversity so important?” (which ranks for me as one of the dumbest questions on the face of the earth, right up there with “Why do people need food and air?” and “Why should women be feminists?”).
But as much as I hate the Big Questions, I don’t want to be rude to the very nice reporters who ask. I don’t think the reporters mean any harm in posing the questions – I think people genuinely wonder.”
– Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes
I’ve answered questions just as often as I’ve asked them. That’s why, over the last decade, I collected questions from books, coaching and therapy sessions, other interviews I read, sociology, psychology, and a bunch of other disciplines. I documented some of them (e.g. 100 questions for better decisions) but most just sit in my head, popping up whenever I need them and connecting the dots in unpredictable – and wonderful – ways.
If you’re curious to experiment with this, I recommend you read The Coaching Habit and work with some of the questions there. Feel for yourself what it’s like to have to answer these questions. Observe what that experience brings forth. I guarantee you’ll be able to have better conversations not just with yourself, but with others too.
At the end of the day, I love how questions help me step into someone’s life without being intrusive. It’s beautiful to see how they get people to talk about things that are important for them in a way that feels natural and rewarding.
“Ask what cannot be Googled,” as the brilliant Alexandra Petrus, AI Product Strategist said.
I collected powerful stories and examples
Prodigious thinkers have been saying this for decades but it bears repeating (because it’s true): moving someone to act or make a change is virtually impossible without telling a good story.
While good stories are abundant these days, communicators, business owners, or product creators don’t often capture them. If you go to a website and you feel it’s designed for a generic audience, it most likely misses two things: a story and specificity. Interviews help fill in both those gaps.
Interviewing customers helps you:
- build case studies
- map explicit benefits to use cases
- capture the language they naturally use when talking about the product (hint: it’ll never be “synergy” – please stop using this word).
Interviewing industry leaders enhances and expands your perception of the field. That’s because they touch on nuances and subtleties that stem from extensive experience.
If you keep an eye (and ear) out for quotable phrases, you can find inspiration for a website, a manifesto, guides, eBooks, podcast episodes, and a lot more!
Document this information! Leverage it by organizing it into a framework, depending on what you need. It can be a positioning document (April Dunford has the best one!), a content repurposing strategy, or even a product roadmap.
Use interviews to bridge the gap between you and your customers. Dissolve that distance which appears while you’re busy doing your work and becoming better at it. (It happens to all of us.) If you work interviews into your schedule, you’ll keep your finger on the pulse and connect to your customers and peers in a meaningful way.
In the second part of this series, we’ll explore more ways to hone and improve your skills by doing interviews and how you can apply them to your own work.