Interviewing: How a Willie Nelson concert taught me how to listen
In a far and distant galaxy when I was some fifteen years younger and early in my journalism career, I got a monthly writing gig to interview bands for a feature and arts entertainment magazine. Those interviews, I assumed at the time were rocking and rolling. But looking back, after I had amassed around twenty, I saw a pattern of interviewing that didn't work. All of the interviews revealed one inherent flaw and the flaw was my technique. During those early days of interviewing, I spent too much time trying to impress the band instead of just listening.
My breakthrough in defeating this flaw, came courtesy of exhaustion and the musician Willie Nelson, who I had the opportunity to interview for a full cover feature.
My interview with Willie was different because it was held at 2 AM, I was four months pregnant, exhausted, and a little bit loopy after turning someone down who had offered me $1000.00 just for my backstage pass.
With Willie, I was so tired, I just listened. I had a set of questions all prepared and I had done so much background research on him that I knew my stuff. But mostly I just listened to what he had to say, and when I started really listening and not thinking about the next question, or if his answer was on key exactly with the story I intended to write, I started enjoying the interview and it ended up being the best interview I'd ever done up to that point.
The integral thing I learned was how very important it is to take a “pregnant pause” during interviews. Letting there be a silent moment, the kind that's awkward or seems to go on forever, but lets your interviewee think for a moment, and more importantly reminds you to be quiet for a moment.
The best interviewing is conversational and nothing else. It's not over-complimentary, gushing or just about impressing your interviewee with your knowledge. Be careful of too much jargon in your questions, which will only engender too much jargon in their responses, leaving you with a bunch of scribbled notes, but no lyrics to follow.
From that start as a music journalist, I've interviewed well over a thousand folks in my life up to present. I've interviewed an astronaut (Buzz Aldrin), many CEO's including favorites like Jon Nordmark from ebags.com, Peter Sealey, Royal P. Farros, and famous movie and celebrity folks like Ben Stein and Frances McDormand.
The worst interview I ever had was as it turned out with someone very famous I wanted to meet and interview all my life, and some of my best interviews have been with tech CEO's who are in reality, just like the rest of us.
The strength of an interview comes in doing good background work, building a draft set of questions and then engaging your interviewee to have a real conversation.
The key is to start with one note and build. That first interview note can be as simple as saying, “How do you find your time being spent primarily these days? What are you solving with this?” One of my favorite questions surely to elicit a response is, “What keeps you awake at night about this solution?” When I interviewed the CTO of Google - Craig Silverstein and asked him that, it turned out that he was kept awake by trying to outsmart the folks trying to outsmart the Google engine rankings.
Here are some other notable interviewing pointers:
- Remember providing the silence for the interviewee to fill is golden.
- If there is something you don't understand, say it. It's ok to be a generalist and let your interviewee know they're important because they are teaching you as well.
- If the interviewee is not responding to your questions, or it's hard to get them to talk, try to personalize the interview or feed them some direction. For instance, “What is the question you get asked most about this product or book?”
- Bolster their confidence during the interview, with small, well-placed and sincere compliments.
- The interview is not over till it's over. A trick I use at the end to get folks to talk more is to say, “Well, you've given me so much to work with (highlight something specific), do you have anything else that you might want to cover, it's always good to have more than less.” This usually gets you one more good story. (Often it's the best.) Moreover, because your interviewees are relaxed at this point, thinking the interview is for all intent purposes finished, oftentimes that perception allows them to let their guard down and tell you something noteworthy.
Finally, don't turn down your interviewee's offer to “linger over a cup of coffee.” What I mean by that is let them explain their view, solution etc. in more detail even if it does not quite fit with the story or case study focus you have in mind. With Willie Nelson in his bus at 2AM, he handed me a cup of decaf coffee, as he expounded on his childrearing techniques. It made for an amazing and surprising part of my article.
*parts of this story were originally published in WhitePaperSource.