Journalists are experts at interviewing people. However, we can all benefit from better interview techniques. A good interview helps us understand expectations, gain insights and win people for our cause.

For project managers, interviewing is an important technique for clarifying stakeholder requirements. Software developers should read Scott Ambler’s essay on interviewing techniques for Agile Modeling.

So, what makes a good interview? I’ll be exploring this in several parts. Today, I want to cover preparing for and conducting a stakeholder interview.

Do your homework

First, identify the right people to talk to. This may sound banal but it is essential that you do not miss the input from a key person. Ask others in the organization who you should talk to. In fact, you may want to end each stakeholder interview by asking who else you should talk to.

Before you meet with a stakeholder, find out as much as possible about them. Besides checking your organization’s intranet, do a Google search for the person. Activate your network for informal information about the stakeholder.

Prepare questions in advance

Make a list of questions or issues you want to raise. Make sure that each question is clear and relevant to the goals of the interview. Choose your opening question carefully. Your first question will set the stage for the rest of the interview. It should be a question that the stakeholder feels comfortable answering in order to build rapport.

Agree on time and place

Determine how much time you will need for the entire interview. The interview should not be longer than an hour—30 to 45 minutes is ideal. Call the person to agree on a time and location where you both will feel comfortable. A private office or meeting room would be a good choice, a table in the busy cafeteria or hallway would not be.

Let your interview partner know the purpose and the agenda of the interview in advance. A good way to do this is to send an email meeting request with an outline of the agenda.

Conducting the interview

Thank the stakeholder for taking the time to meet with you. Repeat the goal of the interview and let your interview partner know why their input is important. Ask your opening question. Maintain eye contact and listen carefully. Focus on what is being said rather than frantically taking notes during the interview. If anything, you might want to jot down a few key phrases that you can fill in with details right after the interview.

Pick up on important issues that are not clear to you. One effective technique is to paraphrase what your interview partner says to check whether you understood them correctly. Don’t be afraid to ask for further clarification—you may want ask for an example to illustrate a point. Consider creating a quick sketch and inviting the stakeholder to contribute to it. See my post on the value of sketching. Don’t forget to save or take a photograph of the drawing at the end of the interview!

Remain focused but flexible

Keep the goal of the interview in mind. If the conversation starts to drift, gently refocus on the goal. Make sure that you cover the most important issues but don’t feel you have to plow through every question on your list. It’s more important to engage your interview partner in a natural conversation than to check off a list of questions and answers. Keep an eye on the clock and do not overrun your scheduled time.

Think twice about whether you need to record the interview. Ask yourself if your notes will be sufficient. An interview partner may agree to be recorded but may not be comfortable speaking freely. Also, listening to the interview recordings takes time.

Feedback and next steps

Allocate time for the stakeholder’s feedback at the end of the interview. Ask them whether there is anything you are missing. End the interview by informing your interview partner about the next steps. Be sure to tell them what kind of results they will receive from you by when. Summarize the interview notes (if possible, immediately following the interview when it’s still fresh in your mind) and send the stakeholder a copy for review. This will put the stakeholder at ease because they will be able to check their comments and add to them if necessary.

Some final thoughts

The best interviews are not a one-way street. They serve to build a relationship between you and the stakeholder. Ideally, both you and the interviewee gain information and insights. Approach your interview as a process of mutual discovery and problem solving. Both you and your stakeholder will be rewarded by doing so.

How to Interview Stakeholders, Part 2: Using Open Questions, Sketches and Thinking Out Loud

Further reading

Leeds, Dorothy. Smart Questions: The Essential Strategy for Successful Managers, Berkley, 2000.

Image: Business Team Meeting by Link Humans licensed under CC BY 2.0