8 Tips For Interviewing Experts

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, Rules of Thumb

Interviewing experts requires you to respect their time, doing basic research in advance to prepare a clear agenda and avoid unnecessary questions.

8 Tips For Interviewing Experts

  1. Research the subject matter and people you want to contact: your interview always should have a clear agenda and a primary topic. For example, if you were to talk to a SEO expert on about recent changes to Google algorithms, research as much as possible on your own. This preparation will enable you to ask questions benefit from his expertise and provide you with new or niche insight into the subject.
  2. Rules of engagement: I usually contact people via email. But most experts get a ton of email every day. At this stage you should understand them well enough to write an email that will interest them enough to contact you back. If you don’t think you can write a good email, read “Writing That Works” by Kenneth Roman (make sure it’s the 3rd edition). Write a personal email: for example, when I wrote to Adii Pienaar from WooThemes, I’ve included a small personal hook, which got a brief discussion over email and a comment: “Nice email, got my attention.”
  3. Draft an interview agenda: you know the subject, you know the person you’re going to interview. Now, with your target length of time for the interview in mind, draft an agenda of the key items that you want to discuss. I usually write it and then review it with my co-interviewer. We discuss it and then send it to the interviewee in advance so that they can prepare. My advice is to always have someone have a look at it.
  4. Have a co-interviewer: there are several the benefits to having a second interviewer.
    • Fluidity: if you are out of questions for the moment he can take it from there.
    • Notes: I added tip on taking notes and having help makes it much easier. One of you asks the questions, one analyzes the answers and takes notes.
    • Brief and debrief:  you can discuss the agenda and discuss what you have learned.
  5. Prepare the environment: there are two types of settings for an interview.
    • In person: has the obvious benefit of you seeing the person you’re talking to. This gives you more clues about the feelings someone can have about the subject. On the other hand, those types of interviews are expensive. They require you to secure a proper space and time to get there. You should never do an interview in a space not private enough. I personally don’t believe in ”coffee shop” interviews. The list of distractions in such places is very long and you want the undivided attention of the person you’re asking questions.
    • Remote: Skype and gotomeeting are two most used tools for this kind of interviews. While the interview can be much harder, you can only hear the other person and see facial expressions or body language, it has some logistic advantages. The whole setup is dirt cheap and the time spent on getting there is exactly 0 seconds. It’s also very useful when interviewing people over long distances.
  6. Take notes: capture key words and phrases that your interviewee uses and pay attention to any term they repeat. Try to write down things as they’re being said. You can draw your conclusions later. This is easier if you work with a partner. That way, you won’t have to worry about losing the thread of conversation (believe me, it’s hard to take good notes and follow the conversation at the same time, pay attention to how a good lecturer structures their presentations).
  7. Keep it on course: if you said the interview is going to take 30 minutes, be ready to end a few minutes before. A good guide is the subject’s energy and engagement. If they seem happy, you can go over the promised time. If they’re showing fatigue, try to wrap soon. It’s important to avoid data overload. If you ask too many questions, it can be hard to process them coherently. Having a planned agenda, with some questions and a general thread of thought will help you a lot.
  8. Summarize: in case you got something wrong, at the end of the interview be ready to show or read a short summary to your subject. While this is not as good as a thought-out follow up, it gives you the confidence, that at a high level, you have the same view of the problem as the expert you’re interviewing. This is the end of the interview, but this is not the end for you and your partner. After the interview you debrief on the situation, what you have learned and what you think is important to take note of. I also try to mention any conclusions that seem obvious to me and that I drew based on the interview.

After the debrief I work on the formal summary of the interview. This may seem like a lot of work (and it is) but it’s key:

  • It enables you to confirm your conclusions with the expert.
  • It makes you think hard to create a coherent picture and wrap it into words.

Personally, I believe this is a step you should never omit. Even if you eventually end up not using what you have learned, you will have a good notion of why it’s not useful. You will also be able to follow up with your subject and, if you collaborate on it with your partner, you’ll be confident you haven’t overlooked obviously important information. Fear of missing important information or the nuance of an insight are two reasons why I always email the summary to the interviewee. Most experts are used to not being understood completely right away. Because of that, most of them will read and correct what you got wrong. This is very similar to taking an exam and submitting your answer. It’s crucial to perform this step, since you are going to base your action, or lack of it, on the conclusions you deduced from the interview.

Originally Published on KnowledgeBird

As a part of our efforts developing KnowledgeFlow Michael Domanski and I have interviewed a number of experts. We collaborated on this blog post, originally published October 2 on April Allen’s KnowledgeBird blog as “How to interview your experts.” This is a revised version of that post.

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