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Get the story: effective interviewing

by Geoff Hart

Previously published, in a different form, as: Hart, G.J. 2000. Effective interviewing: get the story. Intercom, Jan.:24–26.

Most technical communicators seem to enjoy a love–hate relationship with our subject-matter experts (SMEs). Indeed, it sometimes seems that extracting reliable, comprehensible, timely information from an SME requires all the diplomacy and tact of the Spanish Inquisition. Fortunately, there are more effective—and painless—interviewing techniques.

I’ve written many times before that the most effective way to gain an SME’s coooperation is to develop friendly ongoing relationships with the person. You certainly don't have to become best friends, but you do have to establish a connection that goes beyond "you exist solely to provide the answers that I need". Most of us find it easy to drop what we're doing and chat for half an hour with someone we want to talk to, and this generalisation applies even to our SMEs; they’re human too, after all, and thus in need of the human touch. Once you’ve established this contact, you can ask for their time whenever you need it—and you’ll generally get it. Contrast this with the predictable, intensely human reaction to someone who thinks of you of as nothing more than a mobile “wetware” database waiting to be milked for information and then discarded like a used Kleenex tissue... until the next question arises.

Building relationships works just fine in theory, and often in practice, but it’s not always an option. Some companies are far too large for you to get to know everyone you’ll be dealing with, and if you’re a contractor or consultant, you may not be able to spend enough time at the workplace to develop these relationships. Then there are those people you simply can’t reach, no matter how nice you are; some curmudgeons simply don’t like “nice”. In the rest of this article, I’ve described some survival tactics that can get you into an SME’s office or cube and out again with the information you need, even under challenging circumstances.

Negotiate a mutually convenient time

I find few things more annoying than getting into the groove with my writing or editing and having someone drop in, unannounced, to demand a large chunk of my time. My own reaction leads me to assume that others would be equally annoyed, and although I’m not averse to dropping in on an SME unannounced for a really brief visit, I always begin my visit by asking whether now is truly convenient; if I’m obviously interrupting something, or see any signs of discomfort, I immediately propose another meeting time. Showing even that little bit of consideration for the other person usually earns me the time I need for an immediate answer, and if not, it greatly facilitates arranging a subsequent meeting. Even the busiest people can fit you into their schedule if you negotiate a time that suits both of you rather than insisting on immediate gratification; for example, I’ve occasionally chatted with someone early in the morning while they waited for the coffee pot to finish filling, or late in the day as they waited for a car to pick them up at the front door to take them home. For more refractory folks, a judiciously planned ambush almost always provides at least enough time to let you arrange a meeting later on.

Negotiating a time also includes setting boundaries. If someone offers you an hour of their time, pause for a moment 15 minutes before your hour is up and find out whether you’ll be able to extend the interview. If not, at least you’ve still got 15 minutes to get answers to your most important remaining questions and arrange a followup interview. But if you’re lucky, your courtesy may earn you an extension that lets you finish the interview without having unduly inconvenienced the SME.

Understand your subject

Although knowing little or nothing about your subject can be an advantage when you interview the types of SME who like to impress inferiors with their genius, “playing dumb” is rarely a good strategy. Even when you’re able to coax someone into demonstrating their superior knowledge by persuading them they're much smarter than you are, you may never regain the person’s respect once you’ve lost it. Moreover, many SMEs (scientists in particular) are likely to be flattered that you took the time to learn a bit about what they do. This shows an interest in them as people, and gives you an instant point of connection: "This person understands and appreciates what I do, even if only a little. We have something to say to each other." Don’t ever try to fake being a rocket scientist, because the real rocket scientists will quickly spot your deception and label you as manipulative or worse; instead, admit your ignorance and express a willingness to learn. But before you arrive, at least try to minimize your ignorance.

Come prepared

Common wisdom suggests that arriving at an interview with a questionnaire is a bad idea, but that's only true if you show up with pages of questions and hand them to the SME to answer; doing so destroys any illusion that you’re seeking dialogue and strongly suggests that you consider the person not worth talking to. If, unlike me, you can remember all the questions you need to ask without writing them down somewhere, then by all means show up with nothing more than a pen and a blank notepad; if not, having the questions written down ensures that you won’t be back three more times that day to ask the questions you forgot to ask the first time. It's all about preparation: understand that you're imposing on someone else and taking up time they’d prefer to spend doing their own work, and prepare in advance so you can reduce the magnitude of that imposition. Arriving prepared shows respect for the value of the other person's time, makes you appear more professional, and gets you better answers to your questions.

One helpful variant of this approach: if you suspect that the person will need time to think about or research the answers, offer to leave them a copy of your questions before you actually get together so they have time to prepare. This is especially important if the questions will be demanding and you run the risk of publicly or privately embarassing an unprepared SME.

Design powerful questions

The second aspect of preparation involves designing questions that will actually get you the answers you need—rather than just answers. Learning to design good questions is tricky enough to merit its own article (see Chapter 10 in Hackos and Redish (1998), for example), but understanding how the way you ask a question can predetermine the answer provides all the tools you need to start learning on your own. For example, compare the effectiveness of the following questions:

Can this dialog box hold a large number of characters?

How many characters can this dialog box hold, and are there any restrictions on the permitted characters?

I found that I could enter up to 40 characters in this field, including numbers and spaces, but I couldn’t try all combinations of the symbols on the keyboard. Are there any limits beyond length that I should be aware of?

The first question will most likely earn you a “yes” answer, whereas the second will likely add the actual number of characters plus some (but maybe not all) of the restrictions. The third question shows that you’ve done your own research and are coming to the SME for confirmation and elaboration rather than seeking easy answers that you could provide yourself; this both gives the (correct) impression that you’re trying to save the SME time and effort, and lets the SME focus on what you’ve missed rather than having to build a complete list of parameters from scratch. If your goal is to confirm the length of input accepted by that field and what character combinations are excluded, the third question is the only one that will reliably provide the answers you want to receive; in other situations, a quick yes or no may be all you want to hear, and the simpler questions will suffice. If you can carefully define the answer you need, you can develop a focused question that will elicit only that answer.

Don’t play mind games

Talk show interviewers and psychologists often use awkward silences and pauses to unnerve interview subjects and cause them to blurt out information they wouldn’t otherwise reveal. However, few technical communicators serve either role professionally, and you really don't want to make a habit of playing that kind of mind game with colleagues; it will come back to haunt you. ("Uh oh, it's Geoff again... better look busy... he's so damned uncomfortable to talk with.") That’s not to say that you shouldn’t pay careful attention to the other person and learn when to give them time to reflect on what they've said or what you’ve asked. For example, one of my SMEs has a mind that functions like a felled tree: once you’ve started his thoughts in motion, they will complete their full course no matter how you try to interrupt them. Knowing this, I ask my question, then back off and give him the time he needs to reach a conclusion. What this really comes down to is that you must develop enough empathy for the other person that you can let your conversation find its own pace and rhythm. The best way to do this is to consciously rein in your own impatience and let the other person share in the conversation rather than serving solely as the target of probing questions.

Similarly, deliberately making an incorrect statement often captures someone’s attention or provokes a response, but this approach too can backfire: if you reveal yourself as ignorant or eager to provoke unpleasant responses, you’re undermining the other person’s respect for you. Instead, try the far gentler techniques of “hypothesizing” and “paraphrasing”, which are collectively referred to as “active listening”. “Hypothesizing” involves framing a tentative explanation or description as a starting point for discussion, whereas “paraphrasing” involves restating someone's explanation in your own words; both give the person an opportunity to correct or elaborate on your words if you’ve misunderstood somehow. Moreover, both approaches help you to remember the answer, and show the person that you've been working to understand rather than acting as a brainless tape recorder.

Understand who you’re dealing with

One of the joys—and frustrations—of dealing with people is that everyone is different, and those differences frequently intensify when the context changes. For example, different “corporate cultures” impose different communication styles, particularly if you’re an outsider who doesn’t fit into the established hierarchies. Sex and ethnic differences muddy the waters further, particularly when combined with different corporate cultures. And even within a corporate culture, the context can change dramatically overnight; consider, for example, what happens if the company suddenly announces major losses and the need for downsizing. Worst of all, even friendly people you get along well with can become downright hostile under deadline or other pressures. In the end, you’ll have to learn the difficult skills of identifying clues in the person’s office (e.g., piles of disorganized papers on a formerly fastidious desktop; a large, open bottle of Aspirin) or body language (e.g., new frown lines, the scent of someone who hasn’t bathed—or slept—in three days) and responding appropriately. Your response may be to take the time to express your sympathy and give the person an opportunity to vent, or to make a strategic retreat and pick a more opportune time to return.

Getting the facts

In the end, there’s no one cookbook approach that will get you the facts you need. You’ll need to adopt different approaches for different people, and even proven approaches may suddenly fail when the circumstances change; you’ll have to learn to adapt your approach on the fly in response to these changes in context. But adopting an approach based on sensitivity to the needs of the other person will almost always earn you the chance to change your approach and establish the contact you need to get your job done.


Hackos, J.T.; Redish, J.C. 1998. User and task analysis for interface design. Wiley Computer Publishing, New York, NY. 488 p.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved