How to conduct an interview?
My father is not only a chess player by profession, but also chess teacher and a journalist - writing all about chess, obviously. For this reason, I have been witnessing lots of interviewing sessions at home and on multiple other, outdoor occasions ever since I was a little kid. However, it never really come to my mind that I would ever interview people by myself.
Actually, I have a strong tendency to ruthlessly bomb others with questions. It is not even because I necessarily need to get to know everything about them, but sometimes, for the pure fun of testing their personal boundaries. I actually get occasional complaints from friends who got complaints from other people whom I had happened to ask bizarre questions at some social events - just for the fun of watching the reaction. Initially, I was concerned about this, and I thought to myself: ‘Natalia, why are you packing yourself into trouble the whole time… just stop this’. But right now, I start thinking this is actually a good sign, namely a sign that there is a skill I enjoy developing so much, that I would even risk for this purpose.
Perhaps, some latent hobbies or talents you inherit after your parents, but for a really long time, you do not realise this. So, I have recently discovered that I am actually fond of interviewing people, this time for real. It was an accidental discovery and a by-side product of the fact that I got a task to create a database for mentees in an online mentoring programme I am currently coordinating. Since not much information can be found online when it comes to mentoring and career development, especially in the context of switching between academia and industry, one obvious option was to find people who successfully switched between the fields, and carry out a set of interviews with them - to be posted on our committee’s website. I soon got to like performing interviews, and found out that it can go smoother than expected when you follow just a few general rules. I even wrapped up an internal set of guidelines for other committee members, which I would also like to share in here - who knows, maybe these simple tips will turn out useful for more people. We are not formally trained how to interview people during a PhD programme after all. So, here we go:
1. Thank. Thank the interviewed person at the beginning and at the end of the interview.
2. Build atmosphere of trust. This is not easy when you are interviewing someone you have never met in person before, especially when you are interviewing online so you still do not have any real contact face-to-face. Imagine that you need to persuade this person to share their personal story with you in such conditions - not easy. There are two extremes on the spectrum; if you are very serious and ask prepared questions in a very dry way, the interviewed person might block, stay the same dry and not open to you at any moment. On the other hand, if you are goofing around, joking and tell stories, you might give an impression you are not taking the situation seriously, and you might not be trusted. You have to find a sweet spot between these two extremes, and somehow make the person open for personal questions. It is generally a good idea to start the interview from an ice-breaker: praising the person for something small, and tell a few words about yourself concentrating on what the two of you have in common. Furthermore, during the interview, throwing some anecdotes in a response to what the interviewed person is saying, can build some trust - just mind that you should stay an interviewer and the interviewed person should stay in the spotlight.
3. Adjust the tone to the interviewed person. Personally, I use to ‘pull towards the middle ground’ strategy: if they speak very formally, I also speak formally, just tiny bit less formally than them. If they speak colloquially, I also speak colloquially but I am taking a tiny bit more formal tone. But I guess, there are multiple philosophies here. The essence is: let the other person decide what should be the tone of the conversation.
4. Listen to the other party. It is good to prepare a set of questions which you aim to ask but also reserve 40% of the interview for asking questions which come to your head as a consequence of what the interviewed person has previously said. For the interviewed person, it should sounds almost like a natural conversation. Also, you can use phrases which underscore that you are listening to the other party, e.g. ‘Oh really? Then, let me ask you this: ...’
5. Feel free to ask questions about the person’s personal story. You do not need to know the whole CV of the interviewed person. People love talking about their story so if you create the right atmosphere (check: point 1), they will tell you about themselves very eagerly.
6. State of mind is more important than the preparations. You should be relaxed, positive and have a clear mind to be able to react to what the other person is saying with reflex. Interviewing someone is a bit like dancing, you have to make steps back and forth with respect to what the other person is saying at the moment. Also, smile a lot!
7. Do not rush. Better to book a full hour for an interview; half-an hour interviews can be rushed.
8. Wrapping up the text. After the interview, write down the text as soon as you can so that you do not forget the details. You can merge some questions together and swop their order if the outcome text read better. The interviewed person will care about whether the general meaning of what they have said is correct, but not about the order of the information in the text. Let the interviewed person authorise the interview by sharing a Google doc where they can make their own edits - and give you thumb up when they are happy with the content. Many people add the content to the interview, so they will actively help you extend and improve the text. Also, motivation drops with time, so give yourself no more than a few days after the interview to wrap up the text and send it to the interviewed person - they will be much more eager to read it and comment on it than if you send it, say, after three months.
9. How to deal with lack of satisfactory material. It can also happen that after closing the interview you do not have enough material for a decent post - for instance because the person was not talkative enough, or because their job and daily life look completely differently than you expected. In that case, do not force yourself; better to use some little white lie and tell the interviewed person that unfortunately, the initiative you were talking about is too young and you might come back to it when it reaches some later stage. Sometimes, an interview is just a failure for independent reasons, and don’t blame yourself for this.
10. Act. Sometimes, the interviewed person talks in a really dry manner, uses a lot of cliches and it is simply boring and frustrating to talk to them. In that case, you need to use some acting skills and hide the fact that whatever you hear now, you have heard thousands of times before. Just treat this as an exercise. You will also notice that once you are better with getting to interview people, the percentage of people you perceive as boring will drop. Also, sometimes, the person you are interviewing has personal views you do not agree with. In that case, try not to get confrontational, and just report what they said without adding any personal opinions. Journalists often manipulate published content by just skipping the parts they do not agree with from the final text, or rapidly changing the topic during the interview (that’s why they are often called ‘the fourth estate’), but try to stay objective and avoid this.
11. Train. Perhaps, some regular courses of journalism would help you develop this set of skills. However, this type of activity is usually something you gradually grow into. It helps to watch some interviews with celebs and famous people, and analyze the reasons why the same interviewed person seems not interested and is hard to talk to in presence of one interviewer, while being open, energetic and amused in presence of another interviewer. You can also look at compilations of interviews that went wrong - it is actually fun to watch, and makes you think about the false moves you might potentially make if you are not cautious.
You can also train your interviewing skills on friends, by challenging them with unexpected questions which are out of their comfort zone. You might actually lose some friends in the process :) but at least, you will learn how to better predict where people’s personal boundaries are, and how not to go over the top in a real interview. Just remember that there are two ways in which you can bomb someone with questions: when you really try to find out as much as possible about the other person, or when you just want to test their boundaries. When you are training, you can run on the second mode, but when it comes to the real interview, you need to come back to this first mode.
12. Internal motivation. If you are not feeling like you like the process of interviewing someone, simply do not do this - as this feeling will not change no matter how many interviews you will conduct.
Whoever you are planning to interview, good luck!