Last year, I joined two long-time business journalist colleagues of mine—Randy B. Hecht and Robert McGarvey—on a webcast hosted by the American Society of Business Publication Editors. We discussed how to undertake a good business interview. And a poll of the attendees gave an insight into the current quality of interviews.
Of the business editors attending, only 6 percent were very satisfied with the interview material they received from writers. Fifty-one percent were somewhat satisfied, 29 percent were neutral and 14 percent were somewhat dissatisfied. That suggested a lot of room for improvement.
Happily, there are ways to put subjects more at ease and improve the material you receive. Here are seven tips you can start to use today.
Do research and talk to the competition
To ask questions that elicit more profound answers, learn about the person and the issues involved in their business. The more you understand, the better your questions and the more context you bring to the answers you receive. Understand what could go wrong in the interviewee’s industry and ask about those issues. One technique is to talk to competitors. They can sometimes give you insight into what the company in question is doing.
Be wary of hype
Avoid focusing too much on a company’s latest product or service announcement, or executive hire. Look into the company’s numbers, study where it fits into its industry and ask about what is really happening.
Your job is more than taking dictation. Use your background research, industry knowledge and common sense to see if an answer makes sense. If not, challenge what was said. Remember, too, that when businesspeople quote numbers—such as a percentage of growth year over year—it is largely meaningless unless you place them in context. Two hundred percent revenue growth over the previous year sounds strong, but if the company only did $100 in business previously, it’s not impressive.
Many people you interview will default to technical terminology and dense language, or parade jargon and buzzwords. Tell them that you’re not an expert, even that you’re a dummy, and ask them to explain things in plain language. This works well even if you do know a fair amount about the topic.
Learn when to use question lists and when to ignore them
There are times when a question list can help, such as when you have a set amount of specific information you need. But you’re often better off using a list as a way of considering what you might ask and then working in a more freeform manner. Often, having an informed conversation rather than checking questions off a list leads to more insights.
Tell the interview subject something they don’t know
Information has value. If you can bring up something the person hasn’t heard—particularly when it’s about a competitor—and can slide it into your conversation, you’ll likely earn some respect. That can translate into more open and interesting answers.
Get them back on topic
Sometimes interviewees needs to go through a topic at their own pace, occasionally rambling and venturing into areas you didn’t expect. That can be gold for reporting, so don’t cut it off too soon. However, if you don’t have adequate time or if things go too far off the path, speak up, explain that you have to get back to the topic, and offer a question to re-focus the interview.