Today’s post comes from Michael Domanski and Sean Murphy. Michael is a software developer and Sean is an entrepreneur with a history of business development and customer support. Together, they are bringing tools for knowledge management to small teams. Learn more about Knowledge Flow.
What’s the most unnerving thought when interviewing a high profile expert?
Just imagine how depressed you would be after securing an interview with a subject matter expert and then conducting an interview that is a mix of stuttering and banal questions. I had tons of angst myself when I started conducting interviews. It’s not easy to interview an expert, mainly
because of the depth of their knowledge. It gets even harder when you realize just how precious their time is. To make my experience even more stressful, I knew at some point some of those people may become my
customers. Thus, I not only needed information, I also needed to make it look as if I knew what I was doing.
Since there’s little information (very little) about this subject on the internet, I decided it may be a good thing to share
some lessons learned. Let’s jump in.
8 tips to guide you through interviewing your experts
1. Research the subject matter and people you want to contact
Your interview always should have a main subject. E.g. if you were to talk to a SEO expert on the matter of recent
changes to Google algorithms, research as much as possible on your own. This background will enable you to
ask questions that are informing to your readers and provide new or niche insight into the subject. Also, pay
attention to the background of the person you interview. Ideally you want to have a list of people to interview that you
have almost personal relation to.
2. Rules of engagement
I usually contact people via email. It’s almost a given that experts get a ton of email every dail. At this stage you
should know them well enough to write an email that will interest them enough to contact you back. If you don’t
think you can write a good email, read “Writing that works” by Kenneth Roman (make sure it’s the 3rd edition). Do
write a personal email, e.g. when I wrote to Adii Pienaar from WooThemes, I’ve included a small personal hook,
which got a brief discussion over email and a comment: “Nice email, got my attention”.
3. Draft an interview agenda
You know the subject, you know the person you’re going to interview. Now, with your target length of time for the
interview in mind, draft an agenda of the key items that you want to discuss. I usually write it and then review it with
my co-interviewer. We discuss it and then send it to the interviewee in advance so that they can prepare. My advice
is to always have someone have a look at it.
4. Have a co-interviewer
The main reasons I can think of for having help is:
- Fluidity. If you are out of questions for the moment he can take it from there.
- Notes. I added tip on taking notes and having help makes it much easier. One of you asks the
questions, one analyzes the answers and takes notes.
- Brief and debrief. You can discuss the agenda and discuss what you have learned.
5. Prepare the environment
There are two types of settings for an interview. First type is “in person’ interview. It has the obvious benefit of you seeing the person you’re talking to. This gives you more clues about the feelings someone can have about the subject. On the other hand, those types of
interviews are expensive. They require you to secure a proper space and time to get there. You should never do an
interview in a space not private enough. I personally don’t believe in ”coffee shop” interviews. The list of
distractions in such places is very long and you want the undivided attention of the person you’re asking questions.
Second type is the remote interview. Skype and gotomeeting are two most used tools for this kind of interviews.
While the interview can be much harder, you can only hear the other person and see facial expressions or body
language, it has some logistic advantages. The whole setup is dirt cheap and the time spent on getting there is exactly 0 seconds. It’s also very useful when interviewing people over long distances.
6. Take notes
Take note of key words and phrases that your interviewee uses and pay attention to any term they repeat. Try to
write down things as they’re being said. You can draw your conclusions later. This is easier if you work with a
partner. That way, you won’t have to worry about losing the thread of conversation (believe me, it’s hard to take good
notes and follow the conversation at the same time, pay attention to how a good lecturer structures their
7. Keep it on course
If you said the interview is going to take 30 minutes, be ready to end a few minutes before. A good guide is the
subject’s energy and engagement. If they seem happy, you can go over the promised time. If they’re showing fatigue,
try to wrap soon. It’s important to avoid data overload. If you ask too many questions, it can be hard to process them coherently. Having a planned agenda, with some questions and a general thread of thought will help you a lot.
In case you got something wrong, at the end of the interview be ready to show or read a short summary to your
subject. While this is not as good as a thought-out follow up, it gives you the confidence, that at a high level, you
have the same view of the problem as the expert you’re interviewing. This is the end of the interview, but this is not the end for you and your partner. After the interview you debrief on the
situation, what you have learned and what you think is important to take note of. I also try to mention any
conclusions that seem obvious to me and that I drew based on the interview.
After the debrief I work on the formal summary of the interview. This may seem like a lot of work (and it is) but it’s
very significant since:
- it enables you to confirm your conclusions with the expert
- it makes you think hard to create a coherent picture and wrap it into words
Personally, I believe this is a step you should never omit. Even if you eventually end up not using what you have
learned, you will have a good notion of why it’s not useful. You will also be able to follow up with your subject and, if
you collaborate on it with your partner, you’ll be confident you haven’t overlooked obviously important information.
Fear of missing important information or the nuance of an insight are two reasons why I always email the
summary to the interviewee. Most experts are used to not being understood completely right away. Because of that,
most of them will read and correct what you got wrong. This is very similar to taking an exam and submitting your
answer. It’s crucial to perform this step, since you are going to base your action, or lack of it, on the conclusions
you deduced from the interview.
If you’d like to read more about conducting interviews, I recommend starting with this blog post. Having that in
mind, the set of rules outlined above is solid enough to get you through most interviews with very good results. I’ve been
using it now for two years, and it’s been tested by Sean (for a much longer period of time). Yet we’re still
curious what you think of it, so don’t hesitate to send us your feeedback.