I do a lot of interviewing and one thing I’ve learned is not all interviews are the same, and therefore shouldn’t be treated the same. Sometimes I’m interviewing race car drivers and I only have 30 seconds to get one soundbite, and sometimes I’ve got an hour to delve deep into a subject. For that reason, not all interview tips are universal. But a good place to start is with a previous article I wrote, “30 Tips on How to Interview Like a Journalist.” It’s a culmination of great advice from many different journalists.
When you do have a little time to interview someone, here are five universal interview questions that I’ve used that practically never fail to give me great answers. They work in almost any situation, lead to impassioned stories, and I lean on them all the time.
1. Were there any unexpected benefits?
Most interviews are a story about achieving something either through competition, a product, or a service. We always have a goal in mind that we want to achieve. For example, we want our product to sell really well. But during the process unpredictable events come up that are pleasantly surprising. These moments are almost universal, and the reaction on people’s faces when they talk about these unexpected benefits create great “moments” especially if you’re shooting video.
2. Were there any unexpected challenges?
This is the flip side of the above question. Not everything goes as smoothly as we expect and we have to deal with those problems when the arrive. This question yields a story of the unknown and also how the person adapted to handle the situation. It becomes a great learning point for your audience, plus it can turn into advice as well.
3. Looking back to when you started, how did you see this journey originally taking you?
I have to give a tip of the hat to Jesse Thorn of the podcast Bullseye for this tip. He offered up this universal question, and I’ve used it ever since. The answer to this question is more involved than the previous two questions as the person becomes really reflective on how they actually began. It never turns out the way they expected, and the journey has a series of twists and turns that causes the person to reform their image of their goal. It’s almost always for the better, but never appropriately planned for in the beginning.
4. Think about another person in the same situation as you were in when you started. Given what you know now, what advice would you give them?
This is a great follow up to the previous question as it gives the person an opportunity to impart some wisdom and it usually makes a great closer to the interview and to your piece.
5. If you were going to start this over again, what three things would you do differently?
This is similar to the above question but it focuses on mistakes, not what they did well which could be an answer to the above question. Also, by specifically saying give me “three things” you are forcing them to pause and collect their thoughts to provide a succinct answer with directed advice.
Those are five questions that have always worked for me. Do you have some universal interview questions that always return great answers?
Photos courtesy of Robert Martinez.