The web writer can have it really easy when it comes to interviews – thanks to the wonderful invention of e-mail. Who needs the awkwardness of jotting down what someone says and hope you transcribe it right, when you can just have them right down exactly what they want to say in an e-mail and send it to you?
Unfortunately for those who enjoy that convenience, not all interviews are going to be able to be conducted via e-mail, or even over IM programs like AIM or Skype. No, many interviews are going to be conducted the old fashioned way – over the phone (or in person). And there’s a lot to be said about the dynamic of a “real” conversation versus someone pre-scripting their answers.
I was a nervous wreck for my first phone interview. It was with Devin Grayson, who’s just y’know, a small idol in the geeky world I live in (plus she’s real cute). I fretted and tried to come up with some interesting questions that would really kind of pick her brain, something no one would ever ask. That’s what every interviewer is going for – the one exclusive question (if you’re not, shame on you.)
Still, I went in with questions prepared. And when I tackled future interviews (including one that I just did today, which I’m really excited about), I learned from that experience, and began scripting the interview.
As an interviewer, you can’t predict what your interviewee is going to say. Sometimes, they throw you curve-balls like bringing in an extra person to the conference call, or they have something they really want to say that doesn’t address any of your questions. That’s cool – you have to be flexible. But by scripting your questions, and what you want to say, you can help control that flow of the interview.
Scripting also means more than just writing down questions. This is an interview, not a quiz show. Although you may read interviews and see them listed in a very clean question and answer format, that makes for a bad interview experience. An interview should be a conversation between you and the interviewee, which is then transcribed into an easily readable format that presents information readers want to know. I bolded that not to yell at you, but to point out the way I define an interview. 🙂
As such, you’ll want to get your questions laid out – but also your lead-ins. What do I mean by that? Let me give you an example from the interview I did today, taken straight from the notepad I wrote the script in and jotted notes down as I interviewed:
So, let’s start with the recent announcement about delaying the beta for BoI. Luckily, the game is only in testing stages at the moment, but we know that even though gamers want a well-designed game, they also hate delays.
What were some of the deciding factors that made BoI unplayable, even for a closed beta audience?
Notice the lead in? I don’t just jump right into the question – I lay out the frame of the conversation by saying what we will start talking about (the beta delay), making a comment on the reaction to the delay, and then opening up with a question. Why do this? Besides setting the framework of the conversation and giving it direction, you’re also clarifying to the interviewee what exactly you’re talking about – your question’s context. Ever hear or read an interview where someone asks a question, the interviewee answers it, and then the interviewer goes back and says “Actually, I meant -“? That’s usually the fault of having a poor lead in.
This doesn’t mean you should just read an interview script verbatim. I am actually very lose with my script; what it does for me, however, is reminds me to introduce each question with context. I also try to improvise connecting the conversation from question to question. If I have a series of unconnected questions – for instance, asking about the price of tea in China and then asking about how to shoe a horse – I will let the interviewee know ahead of time by a different lead in, such as “I hear you’re an expert horseman and are deeply invested in Chinese stocks – so I have a few questions for you about those topics.” I also always save these interview questions for last.
One last tip on interviewing for tonight: give your interviewee a chance to say whatever’s on their mind. I usually do this at the beginning (ex: “Tell me a little bit about your product”) and at the end of the interview (ex: “Is there anything else you’d like to cover before we end the interview?”). While I think it’s acceptable to skip the former, the latter should always be asked as a courtesy. Oftentimes, the interviewee will have something to say that you didn’t have a question for and that makes very good closing material.