How to Conduct a Great Interview

What would Terry Gross Do?

I’m a huge fan of NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross.” Her popular weekday radio show draws an eclectic mix of people from the arts, politics, and current events that I find irresistible.

Terry is the consummate interviewer. Warm, soft-spoken, and intelligent, she has a low-key style that puts her guests at ease.  On “Fresh Air” you’ll hear guests say things that they’d never dream of saying on “Good Morning America” or the “Today Show.”

As marcom professionals, I think we can all take a page from Terry’s book to help us conduct great interviews.

Be prepared. Well, duh. Yet, I think that sometimes we’re so focused on producing the final copy that there’s the temptation to conduct the interview on autopilot. Terry wouldn’t. You can tell from the cool confidence in her voice that she’s done extensive pre-interview research. This is why I think she has a knack for asking the insightful question that nobody has ever asked before. That’s the question that uncovers the most fascinating answers.

Get ‘em talking…and keep ‘em talking. Unlike Terry, we marcom writers don’t chat it up with movie stars or jazz musicians who are happy to promote their latest movie or CD. Our “guests” are more often engineers or product designers who are not all that comfortable talking about their work.

That’s when I channel my inner Terry. Ms. Gross always sounds genuinely interested in what her guests have to say. She’s empathetic and respectful, setting the tone for a congenial conversation. I’ve found that approach works for me as well: when my interest and respect comes through in my voice, the person I’m interviewing always responds positively.

And for gosh sakes, once you’ve got them talking, don’t cut them off. The next thing they say could well be that little gem of a quote you can use for your next press release.

Really listen. Ms. Gross’ unique interviewing style has as much to do with what she doesn’t say as what she does say. She asks the probing question, and then steps back, quietly paying attention to the response she gets. Her next question is framed based on that response.

We’re looking to achieve that same kind of thoughtful, lively conversation. It only happens when you listen closely. Don’t be in a rush to ask the next question. That way, you’ll be ready with a follow-up question when they casually mention an unexpected product benefit or feature that saved a bundle of money.

Be flexible. Despite our best efforts, interviews don’t always go the way we plan. Roll with it. Listening to Terry handle tricky situations over the years has been a learning experience. If a guest gets testy, she’ll switch gears on a dime.

It all comes back to preparation. Sure, you’ll have a list of questions. But great interviews require more than that. Research everything thoroughly. Come up with more questions than you think you’ll need.  Armed with knowledge—and a few extra questions in your back pocket—you’ll be able to turn things around and get the conversation back on track.

Terry would be proud.

By Bobbie Hartman