Why interviews go wrong

Tape recorderIwas talking to the marketing manager of a technology firm last week. She asked me about interviews that go wrong. My experience is (perhaps surprisingly) that very few interviews are wasted. Generally people are interesting. I like talking to experts in any field and I’m pretty curious about things.

The best interviews are like really intense, slightly one-sided conversations (you talk more than me, otherwise what’s the point) where interesting insights and observations emerge. If I’m doing my job then you’ll end up coming up with the goods.

However, interviews do fall below their potential sometimes and here are some of the reasons why, at least in my experience.

Interviewer problems

  • I’m insufficiently prepared. Usually I haven’t researched enough.
  • Technical difficulties with my call recorder, dictaphone or PC distract me.
  • Someone else calls or interrupts me while I’m in the interview.
  • I’m tired. It’s the end of a long day and I’ve done twenty interviews. I try to schedule people who I think will talk on autopilot or be extra-interesting for the end of the day but sometimes after eight or ten interviews I sort of lose the will to live.
  • I haven’t had enough tea. Try to avoid scheduling interviews with me before 10am.
  • (Rarely, I think) I get a diary failure and call at the wrong time. A typical article will require a dozen or so interviews and each one requires half a dozen emails. I’m usually working on a bunch of assignments at once. I don’t have a secretary so it sometimes happens that I slip up with all this. If this happened to you, I’m sorry.
  • The urge comes upon me. Sometimes (again, rarely) I get the urge to dig into some random, peripheral topic and pursue it like dog with a bone. This gets people’s defences up and, in turn, I sense their anxiety as defensiveness and redouble my efforts. It’s a bit of a vicious spiral.

Interviewee problems

  • You didn’t turn up. About one in five of my pre-arranged phone interviews fail to happen because the interviewee forgets or doesn’t take the call. I try to avoid face to face interviews, mainly because the same failure rate occurred but instead of wasting five minutes trying to get someone, I’ve wasted hours schlepping to the interview place.
  • You get distracted or interrupted. Typical problems: mobile phone calls, Blackberries, meeting room intrusions.
  • You’re on a cell phone and you keep going into tunnels or you’re on a train. Don’t do interviews on your cell phone. It sounds like an efficient use of time but it’s actually a monumental pain in the arse for me.
  • You get your timing wrong. One airline executive promised me an hour long interview and ended up giving me fifteen minutes. This is why they got a one page article instead of a three page article. They probably wouldn’t have got anything if the magazine hadn’t already commissioned photos.
  • Two interviewees are not better than one. A common PR belief is that if they can get two people into the interview, it will be better. Wrong! It makes my job harder – I have to figure out who is saying what and attribute each quote. Since I transcribe all my interviews in full, this is an extra burden for me and if I’m confused I can’t use the quote. Also, only one person can talk at a time so I still only get one interview’s worth of stuff.
  • You talk rubbish. This rarely happens but I get very journalist-cynical when people talk up their achievements or glibly puff up their business. “I was the CEO’s right-hand man” – so why didn’t we see your name in the FT? “We doubled our turnover in a year” – against what baseline? Etc. Get my hackles up and I do get quite Paxman.
  • You’re boring. Sometimes, perhaps one interview in a hundred, I get someone who could bore for England. Either they stick to their script (too much media training) or their expertise (too much detail) and the interview becomes a genuinely painful experience. I know this is happening because I find myself repeating the same question two or three times and getting the same answer. Generally the best thing to do here is to end the interview as soon as possible. It’s surprising how few people are genuine bores when they talk naturally about a subject they know well.
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9 Responses to Why interviews go wrong

  1. Alex Blyth says:

    Matthew makes some really good points here. I especially agree with what he says about two interviewees being worse than one – it never works out.

    I’m also a freelance journalist and find it really disappointing when an interview doesn’t go as well as it should. This is because I only agree to interview people who I think will say something very interesting and directly relevant. I therefore look forward to the interviews and get frustrated when someone hasn’t thought about what they are going to say beforehand, or doesn’t turn up, or is using a mobile phone.

    However, for me the single greeatest reason why interviews fail is that a remarkable number of interviewees fail to listen to the question they’re being asked. Frequently company spokespeople have a line they’ve rehearsed and they’re detemrined to get it out regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with what I’ve asked. Others just seem to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of a conversation, seeing it more as an opportunity to externalise their internal ramblings. In both cases it’s a waste of everyone’s time as what they say won’t be relevant to my article and I won’t use it.

    As Matthew says, interviews should be intense, natural conversations where experts are sharing their skills and knowledge. When they work well they’re great; when they don’t they’re incredibly frustrating.

  2. Larry B. says:

    I liked Matthews comments, but also Alex’s.

    Thanks a lot you guys.

  3. I have on occasion had more than one person interviews work well — I interview a lot of musicians, and sometimes talking with a duo, or two people who’ve worked together on a project, makes sense and their interactions can be interesting. Still, I’d prefer to speak one on one, and like Matthew, I transcribe interviews in full, and agree that with more than one person it’s sometimes a real challenge

    • Kerry – that’s a really interesting case where you are interested in how the members of a band interact during an interview. “Some kind of monster” interviews! 🙂

      It’s interesting to hear about people’s experiences when they work in parallel but similar fields.

  4. LamarJ says:

    Bad language has been a life saver. I don’t regularly interview people but I will have to start soon. Matthew’s posts have really given me a good structure with which to start.

  5. Leah says:

    I appreciate this article! I just joined the newspaper in my college and this will definitely help. Something tells me I’ll be doing a lot of interviews in the next four years…


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