The one word that will make you a great interviewer

 Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Want to improve your interviewing skills?

Then start asking this: Why?

It’s really that simple. Why has been my go-to ‘question’ for years to get the most out of interviews, whether it’s in the role as a journalist or interviewing someone for a corporate or nonprofit blog, bylined article, video, or op-ed.

Here are five ways this one word can do some heavy lifting for you. 

1. It turns an interview into a conversation: Interviews can sometimes be stressful and stilted, particularly with someone who isn’t often interviewed. Following up on a question by asking a range of 'why' questions can change that.  Why is this important? Why should people care about this? Why are you so passionate about this work? Those questions help the person being interviewed forget they are being interviewed--and start sharing some fresh thinking. 

2. It unlocks the good stuff: I’ve been present at interviews when the interviewer never diverts from a list of pre-prepared questions–rote questions that get rote, jargon-drenched answers. The interview ends with so much potential perspective and color left unsaid, followed by a story that no one wants to read much less write. Even if you have set questions, strategically digging deeper with why questions can lead to some great stuff. And I guarantee that the best, most authentic quotes you get will come from the follow-up why questions. 

3. It can reveal an ah-ha moment:  On more than one occasion, I’ve had an interviewee respond to a why question, with, ‘You know, I’ve never really thought about that.’ What follows is usually some golden material as that person talks through an issue in a way her or she never has before. Often experts and leaders are so consumed by their work that they don’t take time to step back and really consider all its nuances and value. A why question can change that.

4. It can get you out of a jam: There are times in the midst of an interview that things can get awkward, or a momentary distraction causes you to lose your train of thought. That’s never good, particularly if you are sitting across from a CEO or busy subject-matter expert. Turning to a why question can be a great escape valve that can reveal some great insights – and get the conversation back on track. 

5. It helps connect to the larger why: At Turn Two we are big advocates for our clients knowing and living the larger purpose of their organizations – we like to call it their ‘why.’ Asking why questions during an interview can often help reveal the connections between a specific project or initiative and the broader purpose of the organization. Finding that alignment is key, and it rarely happens without some why questions helping it bubble to the surface. 

So, the next time you’re interviewing someone, don’t forget to ask why. It will make for a great conversation – and an even better finished product.

Scott Westcott is corporate practice leader at Turn Two Communications