As a former journalist and now as a researcher, I’ve covered a lot of interviews in my lifetime. Over all of my time spent talking with people across all walks of life, the most meaningful conversations were the ones I had while going door-to-door in trailer parks. After Hurricane Katrina, the United Way hired Tom and me to figure out why relief efforts went wrong after the storm. We visited ten cities over four sweltering weeks in August, handing out flyers and talking to locals over iced tea and Cajun wings. These weren’t focus groups or formal intake sessions. It was life as it was happening—raw, emotional, unscripted. We came away with deep understanding about what it means to keep going when all seems lost.
The most meaningful conversations were the ones I had going door-to-door in trailer parks. These weren’t focus groups or formal intake sessions. It was life as it was happening—raw, emotional, unscripted.
We also saw what it takes for people to really open up. In our line of work, the interview is everything. It’s what sparks insights, it’s where strategy originates, it’s how you hire great talent. Unfortunately, subpar interviews happen all the time. Intelligent people are as guilty as the rest. Someone with an academic background often treats the interview as a scientific exercise, writing out every question in painstaking detail, along with every prompt and follow-up. Clients play an unwitting role, too, since there’s pressure to prove each topic has been addressed. That stress leads to distraction and a finished product that’s not quite there.
Here’s how to avoid mistakes and push an interview from good to great:
Don’t stick to the talking points.
The burden of working through a monumental list of questions crushes the listening aspect of any interaction. You lose the delight of freeform conversation and focus instead on getting to Question 72b. If there’s a 25-page discussion manual between you and and your subject, you’ve gone into over-ride on what could be an open and meaningful chat.
Be smart but stay human.
So what’s the fix? In a phrase, be smart but stay human. For example, observation matters as much as what you’re asking, and you can’t be a good observer if you’re staring at a topic list. The “science” of what we do should be blended with a larger sense of what’s happening in the interview environment. In those FEMA shelters, we didn’t just chat; we noticed what the beds looked like, we saw how tired people were, we felt the heat and the impact that had. We train our researchers to go into sessions as knowledgeable and prepared as possible but only as a starting point. The rest is about reading body language, listening closely, following up thoughtfully, and really engaging rather than simply slogging through.
You can get information asking questions in a focus-group-like setting. But we see subjects opening up even more outside the lab—at home, on shopping trips, even out in the woods.
REI asked us to figure out why young urban Millennials weren’t responding to the brand. Rather than interviewing subjects in a conference room somewhere, we organized camping trips where we actually sat under pine trees listening to whatever came out. It was fascinating. Some people had never been outside the city before. Others never knew there were so many stars. They all loved being in nature with us but they admitted to being intimidated, too. Having the right gear, even just the logistics of getting to a National Park—it felt a little daunting. Still, they really liked the client’s products. Those interactions helped us see new dimensions to the REI customer. It wasn’t just a guy in a bivouac on Half Dome. Getting outside showed us a whole new face for the brand.
You don’t get anywhere if both sides are bored to death in a three-hour interview. For a study on teen style Kelton did recently for Target, we talked to young women in cities around America about their fashion choices and their retail likes and dislikes. Our methodology included questions but we made the process super enjoyable. We created an environment where 16-year-old girls couldn’t wait to show us their closets. We took them to the mall with their friends. We looked through catalogs and magazines, and we spent unimaginable hours on social media. What came through were some fascinating findings not just about fashion but about how deep the connections are to Target, where things could be improved and which ribbed tank tops get the most likes on Instagram.
Being a social scientist is incredibly valuable in this line of work but you can’t be a great interviewer without a good ear, an eye for small details and the basic human gene for empathy. Those oftentimes are qualities looked for last when people are hiring in this business, but they really hold the highest value, as I see it.