Your New Secret Weapon: Conducting Winning Interviews

Do you know anyone who actually looks forward to an interview? If you’re the interviewee, you’re under tremendous pressure to think on your feet and clearly articulate exactly what you want the other person to understand about you. There’s so much at stake—a job, a featured article, a critical networking connection. That’s probably why fortunes have been made writing about “surefire” ways to ace an interview.

But what if you’re asked to be the interviewer?  You’re tasked with getting critical information out of a complete stranger in a short amount of time. And then you have to use that information to write an article or make a hiring decision. Scared yet?

Being able to conduct an interview in an engaging, professional way is a valuable skill no matter what your field. It takes practice but you can get good at it! The ability to ask good questions and to get back good answers is something that can serve you in your personal life as well (think: new love interests, grumpy teenagers or your new neighbors). For digital natives, this particular skill can be especially challenging. After all, when you’re used to texting and tweeting instead of talking, you might be particularly stressed when you hear that technology isn’t an option. 

4 Skill Starters

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What steps can you take to ensure that you get the information you need and encourage your interviewee to go beyond what’s written on their resume or in other background material? How can you facilitate a comfortable, open exchange that provides you with someone’s true essence?

For sure, it takes practice! But though my team’s years of experience, we’ve put together our 5 “BEs” for skillful interviewing. Here they are:

  1. BE Prepared. Lack of preparation has ruined many an interview—for the interviewer and the interviewee alike. When you’re the one asking the questions, take the time to do your homework. Being prepared will make you feel confident and signal to the interviewee that they are engaging with a true professional—not someone who hasn’t taken the time to ensure a fruitful engagement. Think about the following:
  • Date. Make sure you  schedule the interviewer at least several days ahead of when you need to write your article or make your hiring decision. Be prepared to schedule a follow-up discussion in case you don’t get what you need the first time. Meeting over a meal can be a double-edged sword: while breaking bread together can help you get to know one another, it can be challenging to eat, talk and take notes all at once! Early morning discussions may be the best time to conduct an interview, when the person is less likely to be running late or to have an emergency.  End of day can be more relaxed for the person you’re interviewing—but he or she can also be distracted by events of the day. Be willing to flex to accommodate the best time of day for your subject.
  • Time. A 15-minute interview needs to be conducted very differently than a 30-, 45- or 60-minute discussion.  The shorter the window, the more prioritized your questions need to be. 15-minute interviews do not allow the subject to go into any depth which may be appropriate in some cases. If you’re interviewing someone for a job and you need them to meet with several people, ensure that they aren’t scheduled back-to-back for several hours, which can be nerve-wracking.
  • Place. Will you conduct the interview live or virtually? In-person discussions allow you to read the body language of your interviewee and to manage the conversation if you detect the person is disengaged or uncomfortable. Virtual interviews can work if you’re listening astutely. Video conferences will allow you to “see” one another but not to make eye contact. 
  • Notes. Will you take notes by hand or type on on a computer? Can the interview be taped? If you must interview and scribe, the preparation has to be even more planned. It’s challenging to ask questions, listen, and jot down a person’s responses. Plan for time immediately following the interview to review your notes notes and collect your thoughts.
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2. BE Curious. You have to engage and be engaged to connect with the person you’re interviewing.   If you are interested in your subject, he or she is more likely to be more open with you.  Be willing to probe further on generic answers with phrases like, “When you said . . . that was interesting. What do you mean?” or “May I stop you there? You said something that I don’t quite understand” or “I’d like you to elaborate on that a bit more.” If you talk to your subject as if he or she is the most fascinating person you’ve ever met, they will become fascinating.1BE Engaged.  Use good verbal and physical cues during your conversation to make the interviewee more comfortable and to show that nothing is more important to you in that moment than engaging with them. Make eye contact, sit up straight, smile. It’s not only rude but it’s distracting to multi-task during an important conversation. Don’t check your phone or iWatch for pop-up messages. If you get a call, unless you’re awaiting critical news, put on your Do Not Disturb. [And give the interviewee a heads-up that you may have to take a can’t-miss call in advance.]  Throughout the conversation, give encouragement by responding with “yes” or “I see—that’s interesting.” Show him or her that you’re engaged and listening the entire time.

3. BE a translator. Most people are not gifted speakers or writers.  Try to translate what you hear them saying by giving rephrasing what they’ve said. For instance, if someone said, “In my last position, I felt like I was always out of the loop,” you might respond with something like “What I hear you saying is that sometimes you felt uniformed? Do you think you were left out of important conversations? Or were lots of people in the dark? That must have been frustrating!” Then be quiet: give them a chance to say “Yes, that’s right” or “No, that’s not what I meant.” 

4. BE gracious and helpful.  Be polite and gracious when you’re interviewing someone. They’ve given you time – in hopes of landing a job or to provide you information about themselves or their company.  Remember to thank them, offer to answer any questions they have, and to review what next steps will be for them: “Expect to hear from us in the next 3 days” or “I’ll send you a rough draft on the interview by Thursday.”

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When it comes to being an interviewer, practice may not make perfect, but it can certainly take you from poor to good and perhaps even from good to great. Practice the Five BE’s and the next time your manager needs someone to conduct an interview, raise your hand. You got this.