The Art of Intuitive Interviewing

I spent quite a bit of time over the last few weeks interviewing six community leaders for a local newspaper feature. I’ve been asked several times how to interview people and what questions should you ask to get the right responses. Those are hard questions for me to answer, but have led me to think a lot about my interviewing process.

For me, interviewing is very intuitive and organic. I always start my process with doing some background research on my subject and write out list of questions. But often times, the best information is gleaned from things the person says in the interview; the gold that comes from the conversation and me asking additional questions. More often than not, a person will answer one question and it will lead me to ask three more. And those answers are where the magic quotes start to take form.

I don’t know how I do this exactly. I’ve always been fairly good at reading people and knowing how to ask questions to elicit responses. I know when there’s more buried within. Part of this is instinct, but a lot of it is practice too. I’ve been interviewing people for a long time. If I didn’t do it well, I’d be out of a job.

The biggest tip I’d tell someone who is interviewing is to do one thing and do it well: listen.

If something piques your curiosity, ask about it. Dig deeper. These suggestions may seem simple, but so often, reporters/writers don’t want to act like they’re prying. But in reality, your job is to pry. It’s to find that gold and share those stories.

Another technique I find myself doing is “matching” the interviewee. What I mean by that is I can get a read on one’s personality really quickly. I can see if they’re an extrovert or introvert, or if they’re comfortable talking about themselves or not. I then change my tone and style to meet them where they’re comfortable. And when they’re comfortable, they’ll talk easier.

For example, I recently interviewed a very energetic and bubbly young woman who started the interview by asking about me and my background. I’m typically a more laid back person. But my personality shifted so that I was energetic and answered her questions willingly. We only spent 20 minutes together; but by the end of the interview, she said she felt so at ease talking to me.

Much like interviewing, matching a subject’s personality is a bit intuitive. However, you can learn this technique. The next time you’re interviewing a person, take note of their personality. Are they outgoing or reserved? What is your personality compared to theirs? Try doing little things like changing the tone of your voice, using hand gestures, or using personal examples to “mirror” what they say to you. Interviewing like this takes awareness and practice.

I also take very few notes in an interview, and instead rely on my phone to record the conversation. I do this for a few reasons. First, it’s more accurate. I have a record of what my interviewee says and I can go back and check quotes and information. Second, and perhaps most important, not hastily writing helps me focus on the person. I can make eye contact, smile, nod my head in agreement. The person actually sees you’re physically listening to them.

All this is not to say that I don’t take occasional notes. I always go to each interview with a notepad and pen to jot down follow-up questions or make note of physical characteristics I want to remember. But I make those notes casually, often keeping eye contact while I’m doing it. Again, a technique that takes practice, but is well worth the effort.

For me, interviewing comes down to wanting to hear people’s stories. And then taking those stories and giving them a voice through words. Deep down, we all want to be heard and want someone to listen to us. Listening to people and telling their stories — it’s a privilege to be able to do this for a living.

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