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Four Simple Ways to Avoid Totally Botching an Interview

by Tom Johnson on Mar 26, 2008 •
categories: technical-writing

Heidi MillerHeidi Miller has some excellent tips on interviewing. In a presentation she gave at the Portable Media Media Expo, she explained several techniques that have encouraged me to change my interviewing style. Here are four key points from her presentation:

Don't send the interviewee the questions before the interview.

I guess I'm a latecomer to this style, but I'm now totally convinced that it's best not to send questions beforehand. Sure you want the interviewee to be prepared, but he or she is most likely an expert on the topic anyway. Having a list of expected questions detracts from the flow of the interview. It makes the exchange less natural, and leaves less room for surprises and unexpected turns. Instead of a list of questions, Heidi recommends sending the interviewee 4-5 topics you plan to cover. 

Look for stories and surprises.

Stories and surprises are the most interesting elements of an interview. Although you're asking questions that often elicit information or analysis, what you're really after, she says, are these stories and surprises. I'm not entirely sure what she means by surprises, but surprises are what make writing interesting. You know, as you set down to write an essay, mid-way through you run into a surprise that takes you down a different direction than you originally intended. Same with an interview.

Your listeners look forward to you, so talk more.

Heidi says you're listeners look forward to you, not necessarily the guest. She says that talking more and sharing more of yourself during an interview helps create natural conversation flow.

Use the phrase "Really? Tell me more."

Heidi says to pause several seconds after the interviewee finishes a reply. This uncomfortable pause propels the interviewee to go even deeper, which leads you to the stories and surprises that make for an interesting interview. She also recommends the phrase "Really? Tell me more."

I really enjoyed Heidi's style. She's upbeat, energetic, eloquent, and seems like a natural interviewer. This podcast is well-worth listening to. Some day she should also give tips on how to give a lively presentation as well. You can read Heidi's blog here.

If you're ever a guest on my podcast, be warned, from this day forward, you won't get a list of questions from me. And I will dig for your stories and focus on surprises. No, seriously, I have been wanting to move toward a more natural, conversational style for some time now. Interviewing is an art that I am trying to perfect.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.