Sep 21 2010
If you’re reading this, you probably do lots of interviewing.
Not employment-type interviewing (although you may do tons of that, too, for all I know); I‘m talking about the conversations you conduct when you’re gathering input, doing research, or collecting feedback. Most likely, you’re already pretty good at it. But don’t forget the one little tactic that almost always uncovers something you didn’t even know you needed:
When you think you have everything, ask one more question.
Post an Open Invitation
In my writing projects, that extra question pays off all the time, whether I’m talking with scientists or executives or homeless people. Or interviewing a university recruiter, as I did a few weeks ago. The prepared questions were answered. So were a few follow-ups that grew out of the conversation. Time to thank the client and say goodbye.
Almost as an afterthought, I asked him to talk a bit more about his target audience. He circled around the question and came back obliquely. “We’ll air these [broadcast] spots on weekends and early in the week, because that’s when people are unhappy with their lives. Dissatisfied. Wishing they had the gumption to get up and finish their college degrees.”
Thanks to that unexpected little vignette, the scripts practically wrote themselves, and the client accepted my first drafts almost word-for-word. Michael Beirut rightly says, “Listen first, then design.” I’d add, “… or write! And it’s OK to invite people to say something worth listening to.”
Make Space for the Real Story
Earlier this year, an SME was telling me what felt like a flat, organization-chart tale of boosting efficiency in health-care delivery. Sensing that we both were running out of steam, I prompted, “Annnd …” and let it hang there.
My expert reflected for a moment, then zoomed up off the org chart and into three dimensions. Looming over the efficiency story, she wanted to say, was the drama of a culture in transition. As she likened her experience to maneuvering an aircraft carrier, she revealed as much about herself as she did about the system whose course she helped change. And she wound up with a memorable sketch of a patient whose depression-to-hope journey the new culture made possible.
Shut Up and Get Out of the Way
Last example: In profiling a biologist who rebuilds vintage race cars when he’s not occupied in the lab, I concluded a polite phone interview with, “You’ve been a big help. Umm … anything we’ve neglected to talk about?” Straight from the heart, he delivered the emotional punch my story needed:
“The sound, now, and the physical vibrations, the feeling of acceleration and cornering and wind in your face. The sweet, aromatic smells of hot oil and racing fuel. And the rumble of the 12-cylinder exhaust pipe, straight from the headers out. This deep bass rumble that starts out low and uneven, and then, as you accelerate up to seven or eight thousand rpm, becomes a shriek. That’s when the policeman on the corner looks up and says to himself, ‘Am I going to chase you and try to book you, or turn a blind eye? Because, by the time I can jump in my car, you’ll be lonnnnnng gone.’”
So: Designers. Writers. Account people. When you think the interview’s over, ask that one more question. Then just get out of the way.
. . .
George Heidekat supplies content under pressure for just about any medium you can think of. You can visit George at http://www.heidekat.com or on Linkedin.
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