How to Get Complete Strangers to Reveal Their Deepest Secrets

(a.k.a. How to Conduct a Great Research Interview)

So many of us have to conduct interviews as part of research. It’s one of the most important parts of the research process in many projects, especially when we do corporate branding here at PadillaCRT. I like to say that we never “invent” brands, but instead “discover” them; meaning, we start on the inside of an organization in order to uncover a brand, based on the deepest truths of that organization.

So what’s the inside of an organization? Its people. Every organization, at its core, is made up of people; hence, plenty of in-depth research interviews.

Even though these internal interviews are incredibly beneficial and important, many of us dread them or are even scared of them. They can be tough, especially since most of them are basically phone conversations with complete strangers. But not to worry! Conducting a great research interview doesn’t have to be hard. Based on my experience conducting interviews as a brand strategist, here are a few tips that could even make them the best part of your day.

Don’t neglect the obvious.

Do a bit of research on the person you’re interviewing. Know why you’re interviewing them and how they’re important to the project. Create a discussion guide. Have an audio recorder handy. You’ve done all that already? Good. Just had to make sure. Keep reading.

robot_on_the_phoneBe a person.

If you think you have to start out with a scripted intro that you read off of a page, well…you don’t. Unless you want your interviewee to think you’re a robot. (It’s happened to me. The last thing anyone in any situation wants to hear is, “Oh my gosh I thought you were a robot.”) Be conversational! Ask them how their day is going. Talk about the weather or the loudness of office chatter. Laugh a little with them. Professionalism is always important, but in order to get great information you need people to feel comfortable opening up, and they won’t if you’re a cold and unfeeling voice on the other end of the line.

Don’t be a slave to your guide.

One mistake I used to make was feeling like I had to hit every single question on an interview guide, in order. It’s surprising how many interviewees expect this sort of treatment and are pleasantly surprised when the experience is much more about them, and what they have to say, than about a list. Don’t feel that you are shackled to your discussion guide. The person you’re talking to might bring up a subject, perspective or solution you’ve never thought of or heard before. Don’t panic and think, “But I haven’t developed any questions for this situation!” Let your curiosity take over. What you’re looking for in your research are insights, perspectives, frictions, opinions and facts that are new and different. If you never let yourself wander when something interesting presents itself, you’ll hear the same interview over and over again, which is not only boring, but limits your work.

2.ask_whyDig deeper.

Don’t just accept the first answer you hear and move on to the next question. How good was their answer? Did it sound canned? Do you understand in detail what they meant? When in doubt, probe (politely)! If you ask someone what makes their company stand out and they say, “We treat our customers well,” or “We’re honest,” don’t let them off the hook. Follow up with something like, “But don’t all businesses say they treat their customers well? What makes yours different?” or “Talk to me about honesty. What does it mean to you and the company?” When in doubt, ask, “Why?” Go beyond the surface answers you hear. You can get to some great stuff if you’re willing to dig.

Be comfortable in silence.

When we’re on the phone, we so often take silence to be a negative judgment. AT&T even developed a series of commercials based on this fact. For this reason, we often find ourselves filling up silences during interviews with “sample answers” or anecdotes, but that’s counterproductive. Try to resist your instinct to fill the silence. During an interview, silence most often means that you’ve said something that made the interviewee think. That’s exactly what you want. Don’t save them or interrupt their thought cycle. Have the patience to wait as they sort through their thoughts. Many of the most insightful answers I’ve received have come after a long pause.

Ask my ultimate concluding question.

Well-conducted interviews can bring up a lot of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and opinions for interviewees, but they won’t always voice them unprompted. At the end of every interview, I like to ask the catch-all question, “Is there anything I should have asked that I didn’t? Anything you wish we’d talked about that we didn’t?” Sometimes you’ll hear, “Nope you covered it all,” but it’s surprising how many times asking that question has prompted incredibly insightful responses from interviewees that I would have completely missed out on otherwise. Asking a concluding question like this gives an interview participant the chance to let you in on something that you didn’t ask specifically about, but is important to them.

Bottom line: when conducted with curiosity, friendliness and true interest, research interviews can be a joy. You and the interviewee come away glad you had the conversation, energized and excited about the project.

Happy interviewing!

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