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How to Interview an Expert Without Looking Like an Idiot

Contributor Joel Klettke walks us through how to plan, conduct and publish expert interviews.

how to interview an expert

Whether it’s getting an “in” with an influencer, intriguing a new audience or adding a totally unique angle to an existing idea, tapping the right people on the shoulder for their insight with an expert interview is a move that makes a lot of sense for brand publishers.

Unfortunately, it’s incredibly easy to either mess up or miss potential.

You can’t just go picking people’s brains without a bit of planning.

To help you get it right and make the most of your interview, I’m going to walk through the steps of planning, executing and publishing expert interviews, with some actionable ideas you can put to use immediately.

1. plan your piece.

The worst thing you can do to experts, short of insulting them, is waste their time. Before you contact the people you want to interview, you need to know exactly what you’re asking them for.

  • What is the topic you plan to cover? Write a quick summary that’s just one to two sentences long (this will act like part of your pitch later on) and completely captures what you’re writing about.
  • What information does your audience want most? Jot down a few hot-button topics, statistics or bits of advice you know your audience would love to hear. This will help you guide your questions.
  • How will you use the expert responses? Sometimes, expert interviews are the content itself. Other times, the interviews will be used within the content to support an argument, introduce an idea or supplement a section. Determine your approach so you can clearly explain it to the expert.

2. make contact.

Long, comprehensive posts have been written about outreach, and I won’t rehash every best practice here. Particular to asking an expert for an interview, however, are these tips:

  • Be brief. If your email is more than 50 words, you’ve probably droned on too long.
  • Be clear. Tell the expert exactly what they’re contributing to and who it is for.
  • Be personal. Don’t template expert outreach. These people are in high demand and have a keen sense of when they’re being fed a robotic message. Stroke their egos, show real interest and offer a way to contact you in person—preferably a phone number to prove you’re a real person.
  • Offer a time to chat. Your contact may have a busy schedule, but it’s wise to offer one or two options for times to get in touch. This will force contacts to check their calendar, and if they are busy, they can then propose another time they aren’t.
  • Show them what’s in it for them. If you have impressive stats (number of readers) or tangible benefits to the expert you can share, do so. They’re doing you a favor by giving you their time; let them know it’s worth it.

3. Do Your Homework.

Remember when the teacher would call on you to answer a question in class? What a dreadful situation for those who hadn’t done the homework!

The secret to a great interview is the legwork that comes long before you speak to the expert at all.

Have a goal, not a narrative.

Interviewers often try to shape the interview to get experts to say very particular things. They’ve got the story pre-planned in their minds and instead of treating an interview like a fact-finding session, it becomes a sort of game to see how they can get their interviewees to agree with their point of view.

Yes, you need to have a goal for the piece and an idea of the information your audience is hoping to gain from the interview. But no, don’t ask leading questions or try to shove your expert’s experiences into a narrow box.

Study up on your subject. 

Contrary to popular opinion, there IS such thing as a stupid question, and they come when you have no idea about the subject you’re investigating.

Interviewing an expert is not the time to be looking for basic definitions or probing them for statistics you could have found somewhere else. Take the time to fully understand the issue and the angles you’re investigating so that you can hold a conversation without sounding like a redneck at a knitting convention.

As a bonus, look at interviews they’ve done in the past. Are they being asked the same questions over and over again? Look for a different angle or a way to surprise them; in-demand experts love when an interview feels like something new instead of a rehash of past engagements.

Study up on your expert.

Building rapport and creating a comfortable atmosphere is hugely important to an interview. Not only that, but you’ll look completely foolish if you don’t know anything about the person you’re interviewing.

You can impress experts by quoting things they’ve said in the past, researching their position on an issue or making note of some of their accomplishments in the field. You can also put them at ease by making small talk (if they’ve got the time) about some of the things you know they’re passionate about, opening them up to answer some of your tougher or more detailed questions.

Choose open-ended questions.

Yes/No questions don’t really make for great conversation. Your goal is to come up with questions that invite your expert to expand on what you’re asking. Matters of opinion, accounts of past events or even presenting an alternative viewpoint for their commentary are all ways to get them to offer meaningful answers instead of binary responses.

Group questions into topics of discussion.

When you get into the interview, you don’t just want to rattle off questions one by one. You need to be prepared to be fluid with the conversation and to ask the things that get to the heart of the matter. Group the questions you’ve prepared in a way that inspires a natural flow of conversation.

Don’t open with the toughest questions, build up to them. Arrange questions in a way that allows experts to build on their answers to your previous questions. And mentally, learn to treat an interview like a discussion on a topic instead of a Q&A period.

4. Conduct the Interview.

With your questions prepared, you’re ready to confidently step into an interview. From here, it’s all about how you conduct yourself and control the flow of the interview.

avoid conducting interviews purely over email.

Email is by far the most convenient way to conduct an interview, especially when conducting a whole bunch at once. That said, it’s also the most limited and least personal. Sending someone a questionnaire to fill out can backfire in a few important ways:

  • An interview is supposed to be a conversation, not a monologue. When you provide a strict set of questions, you can miss out on huge opportunities to build rapport and investigate responses.
  • The expert might feel like they’re doing all the work for your piece. It can be a bit insulting to feel like an interviewer has simply asked you to write their piece for them.
  • Typing takes longer than speaking. Experts may be overly brief in their answers or put off responding because they feel it’s too much work.
  • You miss out on body language and tone. Much of communication and relationship building comes from how something is said, not just what is said.

As a general rule, interview in person whenever you can. If you can’t meet in person, use the phone or a medium like Skype/Google Hangouts. And if you can’t use those, THEN use email.

If you absolutely MUST use email for first contact, consider using the phone to follow up and ask additional questions. You can use your email questions as a means of getting the expert thinking, then quickly circle back to delve a little bit deeper.

always record the interview.

No matter how fast your note-taking hands are, the last thing you want to be doing during an interview is frantically jotting down notes instead of actively listening to their responses.

And no matter how good your memory, you will definitely forget parts of what they said, or how they said them. You need a complete record you can play back to get the truest sense of the conversation you had to avoid putting words in their mouth.

As a common courtesy, always ask permission before you fire up your voice recorder, camera or laptop and be sure to confirm with your interviewees that if they choose, they can strike parts of your conversation from the record or go “off the record” if they need to say something they don’t want shared.

listen instead of waiting to ask your next question.

Probably the biggest mistake rookie interviewers make is focusing so heavily on sticking to their question list that they don’t actually listen to what’s being said.

That’s not how conversations work. 

When you interview, roll the responses around in your head as they come.

  • What is your expert really saying?
  • What unexpected angles or ideas are they introducing?
  • Could you repeat their answer back to them if you had to?

Your job is to guide and participate in the conversation, not chirp your list of questions and listen to them monologue.

It’s important not to get off-topic and if the expert starts delving into stories completely unrelated to the topic at hand, gently guide the conversation back with a “that’s a great story, but I’ve still got some questions about…”

But don’t be afraid to abandon the script when new or interesting information presents itself. It’s this candid, unscripted feedback that can make for the best stories and most unique angles.

Learn to be OK with silence.

Silence is awkward. There’s something awful about asking a question and listening to static as the expert ponders your question. But don’t pipe in, or start asking the question another way. Don’t explain yourself unless they ask you to.

Instead, sit in silence, and let them think. It’s one of the hardest parts of interviewing, but if you interrupt the expert’s thoughts, you may get a completely different answer than what they would have given, had you not rushed them or flustered them into answering.

Ask for permission to follow up

Often when putting together your piece, you’ll come across a quote or question you wish you had clarity on. Make sure you ask your experts permission to contact them for some clarity; virtually all will agree to this.

Also, offer to let them read your piece before you push it live. This is a hugely important step as it gives experts the opportunity to see if they’ve been represented fairly and that any abridging you’ve done hasn’t lost the context or spirit of what they said. You’ll put their mind at ease and look professional for showing you care about how they’re perceived.

Now you’re ready.

Expert interviews can be intimidating, but with some preparation, a keen ear and a willingness to engage on a more personal level, you can make them an integral part of your brand publishing efforts and put out some golden insights nobody else has access to.

4 responses to “How to Interview an Expert Without Looking Like an Idiot”

  1. ronellsmith says:

    Joel,

    I came to writing from science, so interviews were not expected to be my strong suit. So I studied the works of some of the best investigative journalists in the U.S., and practiced like hell. I also consulted with deans and professors at the University of Georgia, as a post-grad, asking them what I could do to take my interviewing skills over the top. Then I realized something: I already had the “scientist’s curiosity.” I just needed to employ what was already natural to me, and it’s served me well ever since.

    People forget how important being a great interviewer really is, primarily because they lose sight of what comprises an “interview.” I have come to see every interaction as an interview, which means I–at first–do far more listening than talking.

    Also, Joel, I hope folks sincerely pay attention to the part about silence. When you look back at what are considered the best interviews ever, the most compelling, poignant elements ALWAYS come about through silence. Great reporters become comfortable in this area of discomfort, in much the same way as the best content strategists develop a comfort in working with the squishiest areas of content.

    We must go where others won’t to get at the harshest truths.

    As you can tell, this is my fave post you’ve written for the site.

    RS

    • Joel K says:

      A “Scientist’s curiosity” will serve you well in an interview, that’s for sure!
      Like you said, people lose sight that an interview is super important; a conversation and exchange of information that can make or break a piece – and change your life! hah.

      Silence is one of those things that’s SO hard to sit through – and so worthwhile. Thank you for your encouragement and your reading, Ronell.

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  8. Zain Azreen says:

    Hi Joel

    Thank you for sharing. I’m just wondering do you conduct or do you know any training/coaching providers for expert interview techniques? Looking forward to yor reply.

    • Joel Klettke says:

      Hey Zain – Nope, I don’t! I’ve never even heard of that as a service, actually – is there a particular reason you’re hunting for someone like that, as opposed to just taking some tips and trying it out on your own?