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Would you mind if I interview you? Those are seven words that no one ever minds being asked, and if you’re the one doing the interviewing, the experience can provide you with some of the most valuable life skills you’ll ever gain.
Interviewing is definitely a natural gift for many, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be developed from scratch organically. Even the most shy person can learn to become an expert online interviewer, and in the process of learning to interview – that person will gain skills that can be put into practice in their career and in many aspects of their personal life.
The web in particular is a fascinating medium for interviews, because it provides so many different opportunities to contact new people, and so many different ways to conduct an interview. You can choose from email, text chat, voice chat and even a full video chat just like you were talking in person. Over the years, I’ve interviewed FBI agents, published authors, security experts, a former CIA analyst and in one case even a Roman Catholic exorcist.
Drawing from all of those experiences, I’d like to offer a few hard-learned tips on conducting such online interviews, and the many skills that you’ll form in doing so — skills that will become invaluable to you as you move forward in your professional career.
The Art of Web-Based Interviewing
There are four major phases to any interview — whether it’s online or offline.
- The first phase is landing the interview, which, believe it or not, is also the hardest.
- The second phase is research. This means learning everything you can about the person you’re about to interview, as well as the subject that you’re going to interview about.
- The third phase is formulating the questions. They should be phrased in a way that do not “lead the witness” and betray your bias, but also not so open-ended that you can’t keep your interview focused.
- The final phase is the interview itself, which involves using the right hardware and software for the job.
In this article, you’ll learn what you need to know for each phase of the Interview. You’ll also understand the skills you’re gaining as you work your way through the process.
Landing the Interview
One of the hardest parts of interviewing is, without a doubt, not only finding a top-notch expert to interview, but getting them to agree to be interviewed.
Luckily, even if you don’t have your own list of contacts yet, you can start developing a source-list of experts through popular online directories where people who have knowledge in certain specialty areas list their name and contact information in order for journalists to contact them. Sure, many of them are hoping for free publicity for their business or products, but that doesn’t mean these aren’t excellent sources of information for your interview. Use the following resources to build up your collection of expert contacts.
- ProfNet is the most popular resource for journalists to identify expert sources for their stories.
- ExpertClick lets you search for experts using a keyword search, which is helpful when you’re looking for a specific specialty.
- Help A Reporter boasts 200,000 sources for reporters. Sources need to pay a fee to be a part of the database.
- Experts.com is another resource where you can either submit a query and wait for responses, or you can browse the database and view source contact info for free.
In addition to these resources, a while back Moin offered a review of Evisors, another marketplace for experts. The key to getting someone to agree to an interview is to offer them something in return. Unless there’s something important that will come out of the interview for the interviewee, then what’s the motivation? For example, in the case of the FBI, the PR manager wanted to publicize the FBI’s campaign to stop online child exploitation. In exchange, the PR manager set up an interview with an FBI agent to discuss the topic.
The same situation occurred when we interviewed Bruce Schneier. About a month before that interview, we’d contacted Bruce and asked for an interview. He never even responded. Fast forward a month, and he had a new book out titled Carry On: Sound Advice from Schneier on Security. We were contacted by his PR agent, and after a few back-and-forth emails, Bruce agreed. The reason? He now had a book to promote.
The idea here is that even if you have a small blog without much traffic, you represent publicity for people. They may have books, research or even their own websites they’d like to promote. In exchange, those experts will provide you with valuable material for your article. So think about what they need, and find a way to offer it in exchange for the interview. The experience you’ll gain in doing this stage of interviewing can develop career skills that come in handy in your personal and work life.
Skills you will learn include:
- Finding and reaching out to mentors who can help you learn and grow
- Always looking outward for new ideas and concepts to expand your own understandings
- Becoming a more engaged person, proactively asking for input and ideas from others
Do Your Research
Part of finding out what they need is researching the person you’re interviewing. This can be as simple as Googling. What you’re looking for are core interests and competencies. You need to know what the person you’re interviewing is especially skilled at and knowledgeable about. Google can tell you a lot, because often you’ll find things like “About” pages on their website or their published works, social pages like LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook where they post their interests, and even other “bio” type sites where they’ve specifically described their background, education and interests.
Another way to learn more about the expert and their stance on important issues is to ask your own colleagues who are interested in the same field for their opinion about the interviewee. The odds are pretty good they’ve probably read his or her books, their blog, and other published works, and have a unique insight into what the interviewee is interested in and what the specialty areas are. Once you’ve collected as much information about the interviewee as possible, make sure that you focus your interview around those special skills and insights the interviewee may bring to the table. You will do this in the next step where you formulate your questions.
Skills you will learn through interviewee research:
- Learning how to vet people in preparation for job interviewing
- Developing background research skills
Formulate Interview Questions
Now that you have the premise of what you want to interview about, and you know all about the interviewee, it’s time to focus your interview. The focus should start off with your premise, but filtered through the expertise and knowledge of your interviewee. This filter should splinter off into a bunch of questions in the areas that your interviewee is knowledgeable about. This logic looks something like the chart below.
In this example, the (fictional) article premise is exploring whether Yelp’s review system is fair. The interviewee is a Yelp PR Manager. Background research into the interviewee revealed a LinkedIn profile showing she has worked 10 years with the company and that she was a former Google employee. A company press release revealed she headed up a PR campaign a few years back to counteract bad publicity about the review system, and I also discovered a forum post where she claimed the review system was “perfectly transparent”.
All of this information can be used to hone in like a laser on exactly what matters most to this interviewee. By asking questions that are very relevant to what the person knows, you will not only receive more elaborate and helpful answers, but the interviewee will also enjoy the whole process a lot more. That can make for a much better back-and-forth, especially in a video interview where the reaction of the interviewee to questions matters a great deal.
Skills you will learn in this stage of the process:
- How to make meetings more productive by aligning the focus with what people are interested in
- How to spark and generate much more meaningful and interesting conversations
- How to build confidence in your ability to communicate in a meaningful way
Perform the Interview
Now that you’ve got everything prepared, it’s time to do the interview. You have the choice of email, instant messaging, an audio phone call, or a video chat. Many times, the best way to actually land an interview is to leave the choice up to the interviewee. If you say you’re open to an email interview, it could mean the difference between getting or not getting the interview, because many people actually have a phobia of phone or video conversations. Allowing for email or instant messaging opens up the door for more introverted people, who often have extremely insightful information to share if given the opportunity.
Here are the benefits to each format. If the interviewee leaves the choice up to you, these tips can help you decide what option is more appropriate for what you’re doing.
- Email: This is the second most common interview format, and a favorite among introverted interviewees who prefer to mull over the questions before answering them. Email interviews are often just as interesting and insightful as phone or video, but it can take some work as a writer to edit those in a way that still come across like a conversation. Remember, you can’t immediately ask follow-up questions — so you need to email your additional questions and then edit everything so the conversation flows right.
- Instant Messaging: Rarely used. IM is really only useful in situations where answers are not expected to be very lengthy. Often, you may use IM to plan a time and place for an audio or video meeting, or it might be useful for when you only need one or two quick quotes for a piece where the interview isn’t the core of your project.
- Phone Call: Phone calls are usually a favorite among interviewees. Answers can be elaborate if needed, and it’s very efficient for the interviewee. However, as the interviewer, it might be inefficient for you if you plan to put the interview in writing, so invest in a high-quality recorder and an ear piece you can use to record the call. These interviews usually translate well to writing, because the conversation always flows very well (and you can edit out the pauses).
- Video Chat: Video chats are only usually selected for the most extroverted of interviewees. It is also valuable if you’re talking about a topic where the interviewee needs to demonstrate something to you, such as a product demonstration.
As you can see, the format you choose really depends on the comfort level of your interviewee, and the topic at hand. However, being flexible and prepared for any format will allow you to perform any interview with ease.
Skills learned in the final interview phase:
- Strong communication and interpersonal skills
- Makes you a better businessperson
- Builds immense confidence over time
- The skill to interview can become a career in itself if you are exceptionally good at it
- Having a collection of well-known people you’ve interviewed is a major career boost if you’re interested in journalism.
There’s more to the interview process than just writing an article or publishing an interesting YouTube or podcast video. Doing interviews build up your own personal skills in areas that can benefit your professional and personal life in ways that you might not even imagine. Have you done any interesting interviews in the past? What are some tips that you might share with other readers? Share your insights in the comments section below.