6 Powerful Communication Tips From Some of the World’s Best Interviewers

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speech bubblesEveryone knows that particular feeling of dread that accompanies a lull in conversation at a party, networking event or even a job interview.

You’ve already covered the usual small talk and then – oof – you hit a dead end. What now?

Even the most extroverted among us know that being a good conversationalist doesn’t always come easy – but there are some experts who have had more practice than the rest of us.

Writers, journalists and others who interview sources regularly have developed tried and true techniques that help them connect deeply with people.

Not only can interviews with thought leaders in your field provide a great source of content for your blog or website, the skills honed while interviewing are useful in many types of communication.

For instance, Terry Gross – known for her inviting style on the radio program Fresh Air – admits she wasn’t always so comfortable communicating.

“I feel really lucky that I know how to talk to people now, because I’ve talked to so many people and I know how to get a conversation going. Because I used to be really shy and would have been very uncomfortable doing that.”

We all want to be able to connect with people who are important to us, feel understood when working with a team and get to know new people better.

These six communication tricks from legendary interviewers can help you conduct a stellar interview, build a new relationship or simply become the best conversationalist in the room.

1. First Prepare Notes, Then Toss Them

Good interviewers always study up on their subject’s background – many even have a staff whose job it is to collect those resources.

If you can do so in advance, research the person or people with whom you’ll be speaking. A bit of familiarity will make you feel more confident – and will prime your subject to open up to you.

But during the moment of truth, you rarely see a professional interviewer following a script or referring to notes. A better, more casual approach is to stay in the moment and allow talk to flow naturally, as TV talk show veteran Dick Cavett advises.

“My former boss and idol for many years as a viewer, Jack Paar, called me before I started doing a talk show and said, ‘Hey kid, don’t do interviews.’ And I said, ‘What do I do, then, sing or just read to the audience?’ And he said, ‘No, interviews are boring. That’s just ‘What’s your favorite color?’ and that’s dull. Make it a conversation.’ And that’s almost the best secret. Throw your notes aside, if necessary.’

A good interviewer knows how to make subjects comfortable enough to open up and reveal something real and true about themselves – and that only comes when both parties get a little vulnerable. That’s why comedian Marc Maron, host of cult favorite podcast WTF, focuses more on connection than research.

“I don’t do a hell of a lot of research. I go on a sort of kindred-spirit bonding that preexists the interview, and just see what unfolds. I’m just looking for authentic engagement of some kind … Some people just want to answer questions, but a lot of times, all of a sudden you drift away, and you don’t remember you’re on the mic, and you’re in something real. That, to me, is great.”

how-to-connect-with-people2. Match Your Partner – in mood, energy level, language and body language

“The more comfortable you make someone feel, the better interview you’re ultimately going to get,” says interview veteran Katie Couric.

And how do you make someone feel more comfortable? Great interviewers do it by meeting subjects on their level. That means matching their mood, energy level, language style – even body language.

Calibrating your tone and energy level sets the stage for an evenly matched conversation and puts your subject at ease, while mirroring the body language of the person you’re speaking with is a nearly subliminal cue to show that you’re fully present in the conversation. Just keep it subtle.

Body language can also help defuse a tough conversation or argument (try moving so you’re facing the same direction as the person in question) and let you know when your subject is ready to leave the conversation (Are their feet facing toward the door? Time to let them go).

Just as important, says Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, is matching the right line of questioning to the right subject. The best interviews are never one-size-fits-all.

“There’s no generic one question to me. It would depend who the person is. I think one of the things about interviewing is that you don’t ask the same thing of everyone. It would really depend. Is that person a painter? Are they an avant-garde jazz musician? Are they a politician, a priest? Who are they?”

3. Practice Flexible Listening – here is how

What seems like the simplest part of holding a conversation or conducting an interview is often the trickiest. It’s listening – the right way.

Skilled interviewers become adept at listening not just to the words their subject is saying but also the tone in which the words are said, the pauses and nuances of the answer and what’s being left unsaid.

This active, flexible listening lets them know when to move onto a new subject and when the moment is ripe to probe a little deeper with a follow-up question.

Off-the-cuff questions often yield the best answers – but the opportunity only arises from deep, engaged listening. Take a lesson from Katie Couric and stay poised to change direction based on what happens in the conversation.

“Nothing is worse for me as a viewer than to watch someone go down a laundry list of questions and not explore something with a little more depth after someone has answered a question … I think you need to use your questions as sort of a template, but you have to be willing to listen and veer off in a totally different direction.”

Worried about going down too many conversational rabbit-holes and forgetting to pick back up on an important point? Try the “outrageous image” technique from Dick Cavett.

“Eventually, I developed a memory technique from my friend, Harry Lorayne, the memory expert, of creating an outrageous image. Like if they were caught stealing an apple as a kid, but then they start talking about something else, you picture picking up an apple and throwing it in the face of, I don’t know, Mitt Romney or some prominent person. And that sort of startling image will trigger “apple” for you later on.”

4. Activate the Power of the Pause

Remember that dreaded lull we talked about earlier? Sometimes – just sometimes – it can be a useful communications tool.

When a pro interviewer feels a subject is holding something back on a particular topic, they’ll often use the power of silence at the end of the answer to draw out more information.

Here’s how journalist Jim Lehrer describes it:

“If you resist the temptation to respond too quickly to the answer, you’ll discover something almost magical. The other person will either expand on what he’s already said or he’ll go in a different direction. Either way, he’s expanding his response, and you get a clear view into his head and heart.”

Try counting to three – or five if you can stand it – after your subject answers a tough or thoughtful question. This method can seem agonizing at first, but – used with empathy – it works wonders to develop a deeper rapport between two people.

Since our natural tendency is to fill in a silence, the pause can also work as a power play in a tougher scenario – say, a salary negotiation. Dick Cavett explains how he employs it tough-love style with interview guests:

“You can hold someone with silence and make them go on. You tend to feel you need to fill all dead air. There are times when if you just say no more than ‘uh-huh,’ and pause, they’ll add something out of a kind of desperation that turns out to be pretty good. Let them sweat a little and then they’ll come up with something that they were perhaps not going to say.”

5. Cultivate Curiosity, the Dale Carnegie approach

All of these techniques are tried and true, but they don’t really work without one simple quality on the interviewer’s part: curiosity.

A true passion for learning more about those around you goes further than any trick or even the most polished communication skills. Take it from Gay Talese, one of the legendary founders of literary journalism:

“I used to wander around. I never knew exactly what I was looking for. I knew vaguely what I hoped to find or I had some rough idea, but I was in the exploratory mode all the time … Just go out and discover and you’ll find by chance, by accident some terrific stories, some terrific people you never thought you would meet.”

You can cultivate curiosity in your daily life by noticing more details, delving deeply into the ideas that grab your interest and being alert to those around you and what makes them light up.

As Dale Carnegie famously explains, the beauty of curiosity is that it makes you nearly irresistible to everyone around you.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

how-to-win-friends6. Practice Ego Suspension: The Power of Forgetting Yourself

Of course we’d all like to think of ourselves as attentive, curious students of the world, but one little thing gets in the way: our own egos.

It’s not our fault – we’re hardwired that way. After all, talking about ourselves feels as good to our brains as money or sex.

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That’s why ego suspension is so essential to cultivating the kind of curiosity that lets you connect with others. Robin Dreeke, lead instructor at the FBI’s Counterintelligence Training Center in behavioral and interpersonal skills training, explains:

“Most times, when two individuals engage in a conversation, each patiently waits for the other person to be done with whatever story he or she is telling. Then, the other person tells his or her own story, usually on a related topic and often times in an attempt to have a better and more interesting story. Individuals practicing good ego suspension would continue to encourage the other individual to talk about his or her story, neglecting their own need to share what they think is a great story.”

At the next gathering you attend, resist the urge to tell that one story that always kills and instead focus on asking questions of someone new. It may be unfulfilling at first, but you might be amazed at the end result.

As author Tom Wolfe puts it, “the world is full of people with information-compulsion who want to tell you their stories. They want to tell you things that you don’t know. They’re some of the greatest allies that any writer has.”

What tips and tricks have you picked up that help you connect with people and have more meaningful conversations? Let me know in the comments!

Oh, and if you enjoyed this article you might also like “6 Powerful Psychological Effects that Explain how Our Brains Tick” and “The Habits of Successful People: Thinking in Ratios

PS: We’ve recently launched the new Buffer for Business for a better way to handle your social media, with powerful new analytics, I hope it might be useful for you!

Image Credits: Marc Wathieu, Funders and Founders, Mindmeister

  • http://blog-dein-geld-im-internet.blogspot.de/ Güngör Bayrak

    Great tips and scientific knowledge how to interview people.
    I will use this tips to create my own way to interview partner. In my personal opinion an interview is the easiest way to get powerful information.
    Thanks a lot.

    • RavenCourtney

      Thanks for reading! I think a lot of people overlook how powerful an experience an interview can be. A great way to get to know someone on a deeper level.

  • Ankit Das

    Can’t thank you enough @RavenCourtney:disqus , i was looking for it!!

    • RavenCourtney

      Glad you liked the post!

  • http://sukofamily.org/ Caleb

    Wow, I think these tips are great for a lot of different areas in life. Some of these things can be used in daily conversations to help grow personal relationships.

    • RavenCourtney

      Awesome that you think so, Caleb! That was the idea – to make the tips useful in lots of different areas of connection and communication.

      • http://sukofamily.org/ Caleb

        I’ve only done a few interviews in my life by I find that engaging with people on a personal level is something that I have to do every day, it’s a big part of how I interact with donors too!

        • RavenCourtney

          It’s something that most of us have to do every day! (Or should, at least)

  • Rita

    Very cool and insightful article. Thanks Raven

    • RavenCourtney

      Glad you liked it! :)

  • Peggy Glenn

    but, but, but – his name is spelled Cavett ” Dick Cavitt explains how he employs it tough-love style with interview guests”

    • RavenCourtney

      Oh no! I DID totally goof on his name there! Thank you so much for pointing that out, Peggy! Will make sure I get it fixed. :)

      • Peggy Glenn

        It’s all good – word nerds stick together.

  • http://sohotechtraining.com/ Deb Lee

    Seems like listening (really listening) is important for every day life, too. Will be tucking this article away for my next G+ Hangout interview. Thanks!

    • RavenCourtney

      Definitely, Deb! And video chats like Skype and G+ Hangouts make great listening skills even more crucial. Hope the tips give you a hand in your next chat!

      • http://sohotechtraining.com/ Deb Lee

        Me, too. Next Hangout is at the end of the month. =)

  • http://www.alexisrodrigo.com/ Lexi-Web Copywriter

    Hi Courtney, Thank you for this helpful and research-packed article! I’m definitely bookmarking it for my webinars. But I will also try to apply these tips in my daily life. We all could use more authentic interactions in the course of our day. Cheers!

    • RavenCourtney

      You’re very welcome, Lexi! I hope it proves helpful for you. :)

  • Josh Medina

    I enjoyed reading this article Courtney! As a Community Manager, I will surely use these tips with my audience

    • RavenCourtney

      Yeah, Josh! Community managers unite! :) Have you been lighthouse.io? Lots of great resources for community there. Glad you liked the article!

  • Alex Clifford

    Courtney – this is a fantastic article! I’m looking to create films interviewing tech entrepreneurs in San Francisco – so this really hit the spot.

    If anyone knows any tech entrepreneurs who they could put me in touch with here in SF, that would be awesome. Please email me: alexclifford93@gmail.com

    • RavenCourtney

      Good luck with your project, Alex! Hope these tips help you produce some great interviews.

  • Aran

    I love how the social share numbers for individual sites are 0 and the buffer number is huge :) testament to the app really

  • Jenna Dailey

    I’ve actually found that where I interview people makes a huge difference! So after I’ve made contact with them and explained how I would love to hear their story, I ask them where they would feel most comfortable meeting? I am flexible, so I could meet at their house, their work, or my favorite place — the local coffee shop. I can immediately see them relax when they are in an environment they feel at home in!

    • RavenCourtney

      That’s a great tip, Jenna! Super smart idea to make people comfortable that way right from the beginning. :)

  • http://www.theoverwhelmedbrain.com/ Paul Colaianni | TheOverwhelme

    Great tips for sure! But I think they are geared more towards getting to know the person you are interviewing, than having the person you’re interviewing provide value or content to your audience.

    For example, in my podcast, I choose not to dive into who my guests are, but more about what they know. The most important people are my audience. My guest certainly owns the stage, but I really don’t want them talking about themselves for too long because listeners want to know “What’s in it for me”

    I will agree that all these tips are super valuable for building rapport, and for interviews that DO focus on the person being interviewed.

    • RavenCourtney

      “The most important people are my audience.” <— What an awesome philosophy, Paul!

      Yes, you're totally right–it all depends on the end goal of your interview. These tips are especially effective for interviews focused on building a relationship – say, with a VIP, an influencer in your industry or perhaps a member of the press.

      Do you have any tips you'd like to share for getting the most useful info out of an interview?

      • http://www.theoverwhelmedbrain.com/ Paul Colaianni | TheOverwhelme

        Ha ha, probably! I do know that when I’m interviewing, I keep two things in mind:
        Will this benefit the listener somehow? and
        Is the guest talking too much about themselves?

        If the latter, I make sure to ask questions like, “What could one do…” trying to connect them to the outside world again.

        “How” questions are some of my favorite though. i.e.:
        “How do you know when you’ve found your passion?”

        It’s a question about them, but it really relates to the rest of us.

        Just a couple things I do! : )

        • RavenCourtney

          You sound like a great interviewer to me :)

  • ClearlyInfluential

    This is great. I’m glad I found it today as I’ve been interested in learning more about interview techniques. Thanks for posting, I’ll share this shortly :)

    • RavenCourtney

      Thanks; I’m glad it was helpful for you!

  • Lloyd

    You may want to consider a use case other than Katie Couric, who recently earned criticism for her invasive questioning and sensationalist journalism: http://www.autostraddle.com/flawless-trans-women-carmen-carrera-and-laverne-cox-respond-flawlessly-to-katie-courics-invasive-questions-215855.

    • RavenCourtney

      Yes, I read about that a while after this was posted. Disappointing to see her handle that with so little empathy. Even great interviewers make mistakes, I suppose.

  • SettingAside

    Thank you for good pointers. One thing Ms. Couric and her ilk need to learn is to curb their own biases when disseminating information such as “how to interview.”
    Ms. Couric stated her memory technique, suggesting envisioning “the apple being thrown at Mitt Romney” in particular???
    Just that bit of pointed political hatred sours the rest of whatever Couric may say. You see, knowing when not to be anti-something when giving pointers like this is critical to one’s credibility. Sometimes, the Courics of the industry forget there are people who’d like to learn something without the snarky comments.

    • RavenCourtney

      Just to clarify, the memory trick apple quote was actually from Dick Cavett, not Katie Couric. I’ll give Dick the benefit of the doubt here and say he was just plucking the name of a well-known person out of the air, but I can certainly see your point. We could all do with less snark in the world. :)

      • SettingAside

        Sorry about that. Thanks for the clarification. When I read the article I was actually doing two things at the same time – not a good idea on my part. I mistakenly put that on Ms. Couric. Having said that, it would be refreshing to read and hear from pros without having to endure their personal biases. Not to belabor this, but Mr. Cavett could’ve made his point without picking someone to target. Here’s to less snark. I’ll try to do my part, too :-)

  • Ian

    Excellent article. I’d like to add to this comment.
    “Body language can [...] let you know when your subject is ready to leave the conversation (Are their feet facing toward the door? Time to let them go).”

    Sometimes you approach someone at their desk and they cannot “leave” because they’re at *their* desk. Stop talking and leave if it appears they’re trying to get back to work. Respect their space.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Great point!

  • Haig Panossian

    I agree with Courtney’s advice about the importance of listening in communicating effectively. I offer similar advice on my blog and discuss a tool to help communicators better understand their audiences, called the Empathy Map I discuss on my blog: http://connectionthinking.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/listen-to-be-heard-the-most-important-communication-skill/

    • Courtney Seiter

      I really like the map! Thanks for sharing :)