Interview with an interviewer

November 16, 2010 | Interviewing, Podcasting, Video

Question: What’s the biggest mistake most interviewers make?

Answer: There are several.

Q: Tell me one.

A: There. What you just did solved a major problem among interviewers. You avoided a compound answer by asking for a single answer. But it’s actually the reverse of that that is usually the problem. Too many interviewers ask compound questions. You see this at presidential news conferences all the time. Given a rare opportunity to ask the president of the United States a question the reporter packages three of four questions into one. The person answering a compound question – whether the President or a business executive – will typically ignore or summarily dispose of the toughest question or two and concentrate his or her answer on the question most easily dealt with and least controversial or penetrating.

Q: So Rule No. 1, don’t ask compound questions.

A: Exactly. The best answers come when the interviewee is kept focused on answering a single question. It keeps them boxed in and undistracted by other matters.

Q: Give us one other thing you would warn interviewers against doing.

A: Not preparing in advance. An interviewer should be somewhat like a trial attorney in that they know the answers to some of the questions they plan to ask. It isn’t a test of truth-telling so much as a technique used to tell how the interviewee answer questions, how they express truth. It gives you insights as to how they express themselves. When you understand how people express themselves that you can ask more poignant questions and, more importantly, ask more revealing follow-up questions.

Q: So advanced research is essential.

A: Yes, but doing advanced research is a double-edged sword, if you’ll forgive the cliché. It can lead the interviewer down the path of plowing the same old territory that was plowed by many interviewers before. Business and entertainment celebrities will tell you they’re asked the same questions over and over again. A good interview breaks new ground. We should be focused on asking fresh questions and finding ways to better engage the subject. It’s important to add to the sum total of the body of work written, recorded and broadcast about the person we’re interviewing. Otherwise, what’s the point of the exercise?