How to Conduct an Effective Interview and Learn from Anyone

published3 months ago
4 min read

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3 Things I’ve Loved This Week

Pen I Love - Paper Mate Flair Felt Tip Pens, Medium Point (0.7mm) - When I’m interviewing someone, I often don’t have time to take meticulous notes. The goal is to learn as much as possible in a handful of minutes, and this pen is my favorite for that type of scrawl.

Notepad I’ve Been Enjoying - Mintra Office Legal Pads, 8.5in x 11in, Narrow Ruled - I’ve always disliked legal notepads - until the quality of this paper changed my opinion. I use these for notes that I’ll transcribe elsewhere and then discard, so I also appreciate the perforated edge.

Food I’m eating in quarantine - Maya Kaimal - Organic Indian Everyday Dal - Red Lentil with Butternut Squash and Coconut - What started as a solo Labor Day backpacking trip turned into Covid rebound and I’ve spent the last week in quarantine. This dal serves dual purpose as both camping food and quarantine rations.

Get In the Habit of Asking Questions

In 2013, I was invited to perform as an acrobat with one of the best operas in the world. Knowing nothing about opera, but with access to world-class performers I had 10 weeks to learn all I could.

In 2016, amidst the chaotic opening of Robin’s Cafe, I interviewed more than 3 dozen restaurateurs and chefs with the hope of learning enough to keep my restaurant solvent.

Across my businesses and athletic pursuits, the ability to ask questions – to efficiently conduct an interview and learn from an expert – has been a very valuable skill.

Know Why

The first step to conducting an effective interview is to know what you are trying to accomplish.

As an acrobat in the opera, I wanted to make sure that I could perform my job within a storied and structured institution. My goal with restaurateurs was to learn as much about the industry as quickly as possible.

The first step is to begin an interview with a clear understanding of why you want to talk with this person and what you are looking to accomplish.

What’s In It For Them?

Be clear about the benefit to your interview subject.

At the opera, even world famous operatic singers were willing to spend 5 minutes with a fellow performer when I approached them with humility and respect. Though I offered to compensate several restaurateurs and chefs for their time, they chose to donate their time for a brief interview. I paid them back by sharing the successes of the cafe and hosting a few of them at the restaurant years later.

Most people are happy to help. Some may want to see you succeed. Others feel good sharing their expertise. Communicate both your intentions and the benefit to them.

Setting the Context

Be deliberate in how to set the context for an interview. The more thoughtful and deliberate you are, the smoother the conversation is likely to go.

Put your interview subject at ease - Don’t jump straight into the conversation. Put your interview subject at ease by spending a few moments setting the context for the interview.

Check in at the beginning - Check in at the start of your interview. Make sure that it is still a good time. By checking in, you demonstrate that you are able to lead the conversation.

Start on time - Arrive early. Start your interview on time. Your promptness is a demonstration of your proficiency as an interviewer.

Keep your commitments - Set expectations for the length of the conversation and then keep them. Better yet, end early.

Flow of the interview

This is your interview. Take responsibility for it! Here are some tactics to help you moderate the conversation and learn efficiently.

Do your research in advance – The more time you spend preparing in advance, the better the conversation will go. You will be better able to ask intelligent and informed questions if you research your interview subject in advance.

Follow their story – You are there to learn from them. Don’t interject or change the subject because you have an interesting insight or experience to share. Follow where your interview subject leads you.

Interject thoughtfully – Be thoughtful with your interjections. Especially when time is tight, avoid interjecting your own stories. When you interject, you decrease the time your interview subject has to spend with you and you to learn from them.

Don’t let them get into a rut – Your interview subject may start to repeat themselves, monologue, or discuss things that aren’t especially interesting or important to them – or to you. Redirect by asking a more specific question or something that is completely unexpected.

If you are bored, they are, too - If you are bored, chances are that your interview subject is, too. You aren’t doing anyone any favors by continuing to ask questions when both you and your interview subject aren’t engaged. Either move to another topic or politely conclude the interview.

A Word About Interrupting

Interrupting has a bad reputation because it is usually done with aggression or malintent. In situations where your interview subject’s time is precious, interrupting them can be the fastest way to speed up the conversation.

My favorite method of interrupting is to say “I’m sorry to interrupt, but…” and then proceed to interrupt them. Preceding your interruption with a brief apology will often defuse any tension that might come.

Another technique is to set the expectation at the beginning of the conversation that you may need to interrupt the conversation in order to be respectful of their time.

Asking questions can speed up your ability to learn. To do this, you have to be able to efficiently interview people. Be thoughtful, efficient and direct in asking questions and you’ll be surprised at how much you can learn.

Until next time,

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