Listen up: some tips on interviewing
November 12, 2010 8 Comments
This week at City we had a chat with Sunday Times interviewer Camilla Long. Interesting as she was in my humble opinion dear reader, it wasn’t the most enlightening of discussions with the British Press Awards interviewer of the year. We heard about how certain celebrities had ‘definitely had a facelift’ but not how Ms Long went about interviewing them. And so that leads me nicely on to my own offerings for some practical advice based on my own interviewing experiences, which although not as lengthy as my mate Camilla still provides some good examples of the pitfalls and problems of this tricky business.
Yes, have questions ready but be ready to be flexible. Yes have two dictaphones. Yes have loads of pens, but the kind of preparation I am talking about is being prepared for people. You have to be prepared for people. It sounds daft but what I mean is you can have questions ready and be keen to listen but if the other person isn’t giving you what you want – or anything at all – you have to be ready so that you can get something from the interview. Whilst on work experience I rang an amateur golfer for comments on his recent success and participation in an upcoming tournament. After several broad, inviting but perhaps slightly long-winded questions I was left with these quotes…
“Yeah, really pleased yeah.”
“Yeah, well excited yeah.”
“Oh yeah, well excited.”
My questions and the lengthy silence which followed his answers meant I got no quotes of value for the story and put the phone down slightly confused and dumbfounded. A stream of short, sharp questions, perhaps repeated would have worked a lot better.
They don’t like you.
The one point from Camilla Long’s chat that I did relate to was her comment that ‘they [the interviewee] won’t be your friend’ and this is something to remember both before and during an interview. I spoke to Manchester United Chief Executive David Gill for the University paper and became far too embroiled in the idea of getting him to like me that I allowed him to talk about issues I didn’t care about and weren’t useful for the interview. It is also important not to get drawn in to liking someone during an interview. I was recently conducting an interview for my patch file and got distracted from my task of asking some tricky questions about the local area and it’s problems because the interview became sidetracked in a chat about sport. Remember why you’re doing an interview; to get quotes and/or a story, not to get a new friend.
This links in to the last point but is easier said than done. There is no point turning up to an interview fearing the worst or having any kind of negative attitude because it will only come across in your body language, tone and general presence and that will make for a negative interview (wow, think I crossed the line from informal advice to horrendous manager speak. I do apologise). A negative approach will also only mean that you may not pick up on something controversial or newsworthy that might be said, choosing instead to sit and pray for the whole thing to be over.
Don’t jiggle your leg
I and two other students had to conduct an interview with former diplomat Sir Edward Clay at City in front of the class. At the end Sir Edward gave us feedback on how we got on and the most constructive advice he gave me was something that never even crossed my mind; ‘Tom was quite distracting as he kept jiggling his leg’. I had thought about the handshake, how to sit, the ol’ nodding and smiling bit but not about the fact I might be distracting him with my coffee-induced twitching. It sounds cheesy but think of the little things as they can make a big difference.
Shut up and listen
I have a bad habit of spinning out a question to the point where the interviewee no longer knows what I wanted to know in the first place. Don’t throw in elaborate points to show your extensive knowledge, get to the point, ask the question and make sure it is them doing all the talking. Therefore, if you’re not talking you should be listening. And not like listening casually to some music whilst also thinking of other things, really, really pay attention! As our interviewing guru at City Ann McFerran always tells us, this is the most important thing to remember. Before conducting an interview she writes ‘listen’ on her pad so as not to be distracted in jotting down a point or thinking of her next question.
Many say that being a good interviewer is a fine art and not everyone can do it. It is indeed a tough job and takes years of practice to get right. It is far easier to be a bad interviewer and as aspiring hacks that is something we can ill afford to be. Now, any questions?