Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Interviews: Keeping Control of the Conversation

I've just returned from a big trip to a client site across the country. Hence not a lot of posting last week; I thought I'd get time to write a bunch of posts (again), but found myself wined and dined long after the traditional work day was over. I had a lovely time--but I also worked hard, interviewing multiple staffmembers at all levels of the organization.

Interviewing is hard work. It's tough to draw a person out, cultivate trust, and still keep the conversation focused and ensure you're getting all the information you need. I tend to be a very focused person--I want to get in, get out, and move on. But many people I interview don't work the way I do--they're less focused, and as the interviewer you need to be sure you can keep control of the conversation.

Here are several different types of interviewees I encountered on my trip--and how to make sure you get the answers you need from each of them.

The self-aggrandizer. The self-aggrandizer is thrilled to death that you're interviewing him. And he doesn't think you're interested in the company's services and the insight he brings to those--he thinks you're interested in him. Personally. So he might answer your questions perfunctorily, but he'll always wander back to himself--how he started working there, where he worked beforehand, his family and how they felt about his taking the job. When working with the self-aggrandizer, it's important to tell them at the outset why you're interviewing him and what information you're interested in. Sometimes it helps to give him his due and listen to his digressions, and act suitably impressed--once he feels he's been heard, he may be willing to move on to more relevant topics.

The befriender. The befriender can't sit down to have a conversation without trying to get to know you as well. And that would be great--if you didn't have six other people to interview today. She'll ask you questions about yourself and tell you personal details of her own life in an effort to build rapport. Let her do it for a bit--it will make her more likely to open up when you start asking the important questions--but don't let it continue for too long, or you'll have made a new friend without getting the info you need.

The clam. The clam doesn't have much to say. He answers your questions with one-word answers, and he's very difficult to draw out. When working with this guy, it's important to avoid yes-or-no answers like the plague; if he can get away with yes or no, he will. Be prepared to follow up with further questions and know exactly what information you're trying to get. With the clam, you may have to write your own quotes and then go back to him for approval; it's unlikely he'll deliver any memorable sound bites.

The confused soul. The confused one has difficulty staying on topic. He doesn't just want to tell you about the service the company offers now; he wants to talk about the services they're planning to offer next year, the services they tried and discontinued, and everything in between. With this one, it's key to tell him at the outset exactly what information you need at the outset and how you plan to use it. This way, he's more likely to focus only on the information that's useful to you.

Keeping control of the conversation is important for any interviewer. You need to make sure you get all the crucial information without wasting too much time--even though it takes time to build rapport and get someone to open up. When you're balancing thoroughness and efficiency, you always walk a tightrope. But with experience, you'll soon become adept at controlling the conversation without seeming abrupt.


Susan Johnston Taylor said...

Good one! I'm guessing you didn't have to contend with this conducting interviews onsite, but another interview "type" is the chronic rescheduler. You call at the appointed hour and they don't answer or they ask to reschedule and never call you back, even though they were so eager to give an interview.

I've dealt with this a lot doing phone interview, and it can be a major drag. However, creating artificial deadlines ("gee, I'm sorry to do this to you, but my editor said I had to finish all my interviews this week") helps sometimes.

Jennifer Williamson said...

That is so true--I actually had one guy I STILL have to interview who I never pinned down while I was there--let the phone tag antics begin.

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Unknown said...

This is hilarious!

I had one dude who let me ask one question - one. Then he told me what I needed to be writing about instead and proceeded to fill 45 minutes of my time with his crap. Worse, every time I tried to ask another question, he raised his voice to yelling and just shouted right over me. I finally got him off the phone when he took a breath and I said, "Thank you SO MUCH! I really must go as I have another interview" and hung up before he could say another word.

I erased his interview and told his PR person he was gawd-awful. They need to know how their clients behave, though I don't think anything a PR person would say to that dude would matter.

Jennifer Williamson said...

That would be a self-aggrandizer of the worst sort. Can't believe you let him go on like that for 45 minutes. That's 45 minutes of your life you'll never get back.

About Moi said...

Awesome advice! Thank you so much. I am adding you to my blogroll.

Jennifer Williamson said...

You're welcome! Glad to see you here and hope you'll become a regular.

Unknown said...

It's because I'm stubborn, Jen. :)) I tried to salvage the interview by attempting to shout over him to ask a question. And I was wondering if he would actually say something valuable (he didn't). I should've just hung up. He would've ignored the questions anyway.