Five days a week, the entire nation is given a gift. One full hour of pure interviewing gold is generously broadcast across the country, blessing us all with the finest example of interviewing etiquette and technique there ever was. I’m talking, of course, about Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s acclaimed Fresh Air.
For that one hour, listeners can enjoy fearless and insightful interviews conducted by Gross with a wide range of guests. Her interviews are all about “prompting people to share their expertise, tell their stories, or just reflect on their lives, their faith, or their experiences.”
If there was ever a manual on how to conduct an interview, Terry Gross is it. Working in public relations, I probably conduct nearly as many interviews in a week as she does. But while Gross might sit down to interview Zadie Smith and get to the heart of historical perception, pluralism and culture, I’m typically talking with product managers about generators and engines.
Our subject matter may be different (like, really, really different), but the key tenants of Gross’ perceptive style can be applied to any interview setting.
Before the interview, and I mean well before, do some research on the topic. Many of my interviews are about equipment and how it works in an application, so I make sure to conduct some internet research to learn a little bit about how that equipment works in the field. This informs the questions I write, and it lets me speak knowledgeably and in terms the interviewee is familiar with. Just like when Gross knows key details of the latest release from the author she’s interviewing, already knowing a little bit about your subject matter goes a long way in conveying to the interviewee that you’re invested in the conversation.
Empathize and sympathize
Being able to understand and even share the feelings of your interviewee can deepen your conversation and lead to better, more significant answers. Some of the most poignant answers Gross elicits happen when she empathizes with the interviewee. Doing so establishes common ground with your subject and helps them open up and be honest. And if you can’t empathize with the situation of your interviewee, like the time I interviewed the captain of a commercial ship from our landlocked office, then find a way to sympathize with the story they’re sharing with you.
Let there be silence
When conversation falls silent, many interviewers quickly jump to fill in the gap by moving on to the next question. But as Gross often demonstrates, silence can be powerful. Waiting a beat before following up with another question often prompts more thoughts from your subject, who will also naturally want to fill the silence. Often, letting them feel a little pressure will prompt your interviewee to answer more thoughtfully, which might lead to better content from the conversation.
When you listen to one of her interviews, it feels like you, her, and the interviewee are just a few friends sitting around a table together (even though you’re probably actually sitting hundreds of miles away in traffic). The casual, approachable manner of the conversation leads to the best kinds of answers. If your interviewee trusts you and feels comfortable, they’re more likely to share better quality information with you, leading to those “gold star” moments in interviews. Striking the balance between professional and friendly is key to a good interview.
If you’ve interviewed 13,000 people like Gross, you’re probably a pretty curious person. And while she might find it easy to be curious about her big-name interviewees, tapping into your curiosity no matter the subject matter will benefit your conversation. Learning when and how to service a piece of equipment might not sound interesting at first glance, but unpacking why this information is important to your audience (e.g., to stay safe and to send operators home in the same shape they started the day) will help you get to the heart of the interview.
We might not all hone our interviewing skills on nationally beloved radio shows, but imitating these proven tactics will ensure every interview you conduct can produce meaningful content — whether your audience is 40 million strong or 40.