The art of the interview

The art of the interview

~ Maria Ford

Interviewing is a critical part of the Essential Story Process. I also provide interviewing services to creative agencies that incorporate first-person research into their processes. My specialization is what I call “high-yield” interviews, meaning conversations that surface valuable, sometimes hidden information and trends that cannot be obtained through other means.

To hone my skills, I recently took a workshop called The Art of the Interview with Lawrence Scanlan. Part of the experience was conducting a live interview of another person in the workshop. Through my colleagues’ feedback, I realized that my interviewing skills derive from a mix of areas of practice that may seem unrelated. I share them here for clients and colleagues alike:

Energy matching, learned through partner dance.

In partner dance, we learn to use posture, eye contact, physical connection, and emotional intention to communicate. A related skill is connection-matching. By paying attention to the partner’s connection, you can match it, and once you’re in sync, you can then begin to influence the conversation to move in other directions.

While I am not matching or trying to influence my interview subject’s physical connection, I am highly tuned to their energy and use my own energy to work with that: to create rapid trust and intimacy; to encourage, to acknowledge, to show interest, to steer the conversation in a particular direction when it could go any number of other interesting ways.

Deep listening, learned through facilitation.

At certain points, I will steer an interview to go a little deeper, or will pause and reflect to my subject what I have understood them to say. It’s not unusual for my subjects to say they articulated thoughts for the first time in an interview with me. That makes the process valuable to them and worth the time they have spent giving the interview.

Here, my training as a Facilitator for Writers Collective of Canada (WCC) comes into play. In WCC community writing workshops, listening is as important as writing; we are taught how to listen deeply and we practice it in every workshop. While I’ve always been a listener, I learned to listen deeply with WCC.

Ad-libbing, learned through teaching.

I research and prepare every interview, but I can’t know what the subject will say or how they will show up—in what mood or what frame of mind. If I stick rigidly to a pre-planned agenda, then I can’t deeply listen; if I don’t deeply listen, then I can’t adjust to what the subject needs in that moment. Adjusting, “going with the flow”, is critical because the point of an effective interview is to obtain information that can’t be obtained in any other way.

My experience teaching large groups of adults in various settings has honed my ability to ad-lib through unpredictable interactions. The best lesson plan is the one that you can let go of and still arrive at the intended result. That’s true of interview plans, too. I’ll add here that the long-term benefits of meditation help—ad-libbing isn’t possible unless you are completely present in the moment.

“Because the point of an effective interview is to obtain information that can’t be obtained in any other way, the best interview plan is the one that you can let go of and still arrive at the intended result.”

Meaningful questioning, learned through content marketing.

The “arc” of an interview refers to the journey my subject and I take based on how I structure and guide the conversation. Through years of meeting with subject matter experts, executives, customers, and partners to obtain information needed to write case studies, success stories, white papers, profiles, and more, I learned that the best responses would emerge when I asked questions with answers only that person can give.

“The best responses emerge when I ask questions with answers only that person can give.”

It is exceptional how generous people are with their time when they have the opportunity to reflect on topics that bring them closer to themselves or to their areas of interest.

Conducting informational and emotional-response interviews with my clients’ customers, members, and other stakeholders is part of my consulting portfolio. To gain deep insight into how your organization, brand, product/service, initiative, or team is perceived and received by others, please reach out.

The Marginalian once summarized Ursula K Le Guin’s “amoeba sex” concept of effective communication, and I felt inspired to share it as part of the conversation of this blog topic.