I recently had the chance to do a project that I so enjoyed – interview folks at a Chicago interior design firm and write their biographies. I found it to be an incredibly weighty responsibility, spending 20 minutes with a complete stranger, then shaping the little I discerned about them into a brief summary that (hopefully) did justice to who they are, what they’ve accomplished, and the unique perspective they bring to the workplace.
As a newspaper reporter early in my professional life, I spent a lot of time with a notepad in hand, listening. There is a code, of sorts, in the interview process. If you are the reporter, someone has elected to open up to you. You must treat their information delicately. They are putting a great amount of trust in you, in the hopes that you won’t misuse and misconstrue their words. When you come to think of it, it’s a wonder anyone ever grants an interview. So many things can go wrong. However, we all have a need to be heard and understood. And so we go out on a limb, time and again, and allow others to be our “mirror” – so that we can perhaps learn a bit more about ourselves, and see if we really are who we think (and say… and hope…) we are.
Tips to be employed in an interview session can apply to anything, from client interaction to simply being a good friend, both in and outside of the office. Here are pointers for truly hearing and absorbing important details in conversation:
Lay the Foundation: Everyone has a desire to know where they fit into the equation, and most also aspire to be “a good student” and give you what you’re looking for out of a conversation. Advice. Counsel. A sounding board. Whatever the case may be. So before firing away with questions, I make it a point to let folks know: the goal of the interview session, how the information they share will be used, and how it will ultimately be structured, in a written form. This creates perimeters, and, therefore, a safe environment.
Take a Survey: To get to the essence of who someone is or where they stand, particularly in a short amount of time, straight-up ask them. For the biography project, we had folks fill out questionnaires before the meeting. (Sample questions: What motivates you? What inspires you? What would someone who knows you well say about you?) I cannot overstress the importance of getting these details in your subject’s own words. Even if they don’t divulge much in their answers, there will be good nuggets of information within that you can build on, infer from, and work with.
Identify Passion Points: We all have something that makes our heart sing, and it’s often buried in context, story and history. For instance, many people love “food, art, music, fashion and history,” but that laundry list isn’t very meaningful. It’s the specifics that truly tell you something. When someone puts you on the spot and asks, “Who’s your favorite author?” or “What is your all-time favorite band?” people clam up. However, I find that people really open up a lot when talking about their recent travels, and these stories are full of good stuff. Who someone travels with speaks to important relationships. Where someone goes reveals adventurousness and purposefulness (or lack thereof). What someone enjoyed most tells volumes about what he or she finds inspiring. It’s an unintimidating, gab-inducing topic, and I highly recommend it!
Choose Key Words: If I asked you to tell me which co-worker of yours had “a good sense of humor” and “doesn’t take herself too seriously,” who would you guess I was speaking of? It could be anyone. When conveying someone’s personality, adjectives are like colors on the palette. Only the right amount of blue, red and white will give you raspberry. A bit too much blue, and you could have plum. Likewise, do you find someone generous? Fiery? Trustworthy? Charismatic? These could all be qualities of the same person, but note: The order that you put them in makes a difference. The first and last adjectives you list will always have the most weight.
Connect the Dots: In writing, meaning comes from the conclusions drawn by the placement of two ideas side-by-side. If someone is “intuitive in client interactions,” that is one thing, but if that description is followed by the fact that “in our digital age, he still prefers casual in-person meetings over coffee,” you might glean that he develops rapport through non-verbal cues and intangible interpersonal interaction. I didn’t say that, but I inferred it. When these details are combined in the right way, two or more people could read it and say, “That’s so Michael!” or “That is just like Joe.” And if “Michael” and “Joe” feel the same way, after they read it, then you know you’ve done your job!