The Art of the Interview

Conducting interviews can be a tricky business. I used to do a lot of interviews in my days as a trade journalist, either trying to fill in the blanks for a new product announcement, or to develop a bigger story around an emerging company or technology platform. As a PR professional I also do a lot of interviews with client customers to gather information for press releases and case studies. These kinds of interviews are usually fairly straightforward, since companies are usually anxious for publicity and will give you whatever information you need for a story.

However, the real trick to good interviewing is getting your source to reveal more than they are normally willing to share; to provide that additional nuance, anecdote, or fact that will make your story more compelling and give you an angle that no one else has. This is usually more art than science, but there are some lessons to be learned from people who conduct interviews for a living.

One interesting source of interview inspiration I stumbled across recently was a presentation by Marc Pachter, Cultural Historian for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. (And once again thanks to TED for providing such fascinating insights from EG, the Entertainment Gathering, for all to see.) Realizing that the art of portraiture is dying, Pachter has been interviewing famous Americans to create a series of video portraits.

Some of the insights that Pachter shares in this lecture offer additional insights for both interviewers and interviewees (and that means you, mister senior executive). A good interview gets to the persona underneath the professional; the insights that goes beyond the infomercial. A good interviewer will try to break the subject out of their public cocoon and get them to break out of the public narrative. This is a lesson from which many executives can benefit – there is always an advantage to showing a personal or human side to help cement the relationship with the interviewer and his audience.

If you haven’t seen it, rent Frost/Nixon and watch how the two actors spar in the interview scenes. This is a classic example of trying to get the subject to break the narrative. Nixon’s objective is to stick to the narrative; the public story that will protect his reputation. Frost’s objective is to get to the personal story underneath the public figure. It’s fascinating to watch, and actually tells you a lot about effective interviewing techniques.

I also found Pachter’s story of the interview with Claire Booth Luce quite interesting. There is an unspoken adversarial relationship between interviewer and subject, no matter how friendly the interview. In the case of Pachter’s interview with Luce, she was concerned about having to share the spotlight. Effective interviewing is like a dance with give and take. You have to be able to give something of yourself and surrender some control to the interviewer in order to tell your story. And if you are conducting the interview, you have to be willing to work with your subject and give them a platform for their key messages before asking permission to dive deeper; to get that extra information. It’s a power exchange, and if you understand the rules, you can control the interview and get what you want out of the exchange, whether you are conducting the interview, or trying to tell your story.

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