The Art of the Interview

Interviewing people takes many forms and we each do it almost every day. From asking our friends and family details about their day, to finding out the gossip of our coworkers. Think of an interview as a somewhat structured, pre-thought out, line of questioning. This questioning can run the range of very formal to completely informal and can be both written or oral. In my former career as a 911 dispatcher my questions were very specific and as you would imagine, potentially life altering if there were unnecessary delays. This article I’m going to delve into how an interview works and give some tips and examples of good interview questions. At the end of the article I have a great set of questions for you to answer.

What Is the Purpose of the Interview?

Are you conducting a job interview? Asking a family member about their day? Conducting a formal interview as part of your job? Will you be recording their answers or just listening? Will the questions be written? Is the interview in person, over the phone, or some other format? All of these questions will help you set the stage for the kinds and types of questions to ask.

Since you are planning this interview ahead of time, make sure you put some thought into the questions being asked. Take into consideration how well you know the person as well as the setting and purpose for the interview. For example if you are in charge of hiring someone and you are conducting an in person interview, the questions will be radically different from a 911 dispatcher getting information pertaining to an assault that just occurred.

communication
talking to you

Words Matter

I cannot stress this enough, words matter. Take time and formulate your questions, write them down, try them out ahead of time. Work backward – i.e. think of the answer you are looking for and develop a question to get that information out of the person. Vague, unspecific questions, will get you vague, unspecific answers. Sometimes you will need to ask multiple questions to ensure you get the answers you are looking for. Here are a couple of lines of questioning a police dispatcher might have:

911 Dispatcher: What does the suspect look like?

Caller: He was tall I guess.

This is a very poor question to ask because the 911 dispatcher needs to have very specific information to relay to the responding officers including race, gender, height, weight, clothing color and description, etc. Assuming the caller will know to give that information would be a mistake. The caller may not even know what a suspect is. Instead the line of questions should be something like:

911 Dispatcher: Is the person white, black, hispanic, asian?

Caller: Asian

911 Dispatcher: Is the person male or female?

Caller: Female

911 dispatcher: How old would you guess she is? 20’s? 30’s?

Caller: Maybe 25

911 dispatcher: What clothing were they wearing? Color?

Caller: Red t shirt and blue jeans

It takes more questions for sure, however the 911 dispatcher removed all ambiguity from the questions and distilled them down to their essence getting the real information they wanted.

Order Matters

The order you ask questions is often overlooked. If you are trying to get information from someone you do not have an established rapport with, they you will want to start off with some easier questions. Make sure you make the other person feel comfortable, and confident in your abilities. If you start off with a question that is too deep, or too invasive you won’t elicit the answer you are looking for. At the end of this article I have a sample of great questions from Tim Ferriss – the questions are fantastic and the order is well thought out.

Effective Questions

As I stated earlier, your question is the method you are using in order to get an answer out of someone. If you word the question poorly, you will most likely get a response that isn’t quite what you wanted, or is incomplete.

Put thought into your questions – try them out on other people, you may need to do drafts of your questions in order to make them very effective.

A Good Interview Is Like a Conversation

We’ve all had conversations with people where they were just waiting for you to stop talking so they could ask the next question. Don’t be that person. You have to roll with the punches – if they answer something interesting don’t move on – explore what they said. If appropriate for your interview ask follow-up questions based on their answers. The more you rehearse and make it seem natural, the more comfortable the other person will be, and therefore the more open and honest their answers will be.

Listen to Interviewers

Pay attention when you come across an interview. Does it seem like a conversation? Is the interviewer asking probing questions? Does it seem like the interviewer is just trying to get through a list of questions? What are they doing right? What are they doing wrong?

Tim Ferriss tribe of mentors

Tim Ferriss – 11 Questions

These questions are found in the opening pages of Tim Ferriss’s new book “Tribe of Mentors”. I will post the questions and my answers below. Here are Tim’s answers to his own questions.

1. What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

The Way of the Superior Man – Outstanding book that opened my eyes to the way men and women work.  Funny story: While in Costa Rica I was laying by the pool reading this book and another American stopped to talk with me about the book. He read it a few months prior and it changed his outlook as well.

2. What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? My readers love specifics like brand and model, where you found it, etc.

I purchased a USB monitor for my work computer – It’s amazing how productive you are on the road with two screens.

3. How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?

There are so many potential ones here. My favorite would be getting injured at the police academy – even though it was devastating at the time it set me up for my current success. I also would not have finished getting a bachelor’s degree.

4. If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it — metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)

If you think of yourself as a victim, others will treat you like a victim.

5. What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

The investment of time, money and energy into my children. As a father I believe one of the best investments I can make is with my children. I enjoy shaping them into the wonderful adults I know they will become.

6. What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

I believe a sandwich made by someone else is so much better than one I make for myself.

I love listening to music while riding my motorcycle, to the point that I’ve spent hundreds of dollars buying bluetooth headsets for my helmet to make sure I can.

7. In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

The belief that we can change ourselves – we are not stuck in a predetermined lot. If you want to change something about yourself you can. I have realized this my working out and by changing my diet – both have changed my physical appearance significantly.

8. What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?

You do not “deserve” anything, work hard and listen carefully to those who you respect.

Ignore most everything you learned in college – for the most part college professors live in a self aggrandized circle jerk with no idea of the working world.

9. What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

Don’t speak up when you see an injustice.

10. In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realizations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips?

I’ve become better at saying no to harmful people. The people who are leeches and feed off of you.

11. When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

I enjoy the intense concentration of riding a motorcycle – it makes everything else fade away and puts things into perspective.

For You to Answer:

  1. What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
  2. What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? My readers love specifics like brand and model, where you found it, etc.
  3. How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
  4. If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it — metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)
  5. What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)
  6. What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
  7. In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
  8. What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?
  9. What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
  10. In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realizations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips?
  11. When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

You Should Practice

Hopefully this got you thinking about how you ask questions and how to formulate better ones. Practice makes perfect, keep these ideas in mind to ask better questions and get better results!!

Stay Superior!

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Matt
Matt is a husband, a father, an avid motorcycle rider, and an all around awesome guy.

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