Writing Interview Questions
Conducting a video interview has so many facets. Between finding the right location, building rapport with the subject, and deciding on which lens to use, it’s easy to forget the fundamental roadmap of the interview: the questions. Even the most fascinating and charismatic individual will seem boring without the right prompting. Here are my tips for crafting great interview questions.
Get Smart, Be Clueless
The first step of any interview is researching your subject. Depending on who you are interviewing, the internet can make this easy. Read their company bios, LinkedIn profiles, and any other publicly available information online. Beyond that, a pre-interview can make a big difference in understanding your subject. A pre-interview is an informal conversation, either in-person or on the phone, just to get a better understanding of who the subject is and what makes them interesting. When someone has a long list of accomplishments, this conversation can help you hone what you will focus on in the limited time of your actual interview. You might also learn more about them personally, which can be great for writing questions that will humanize your subject, or at the very least give you small talk material at the beginning of the interview. A pre-interview also gives the subject the opportunity to get to know you, making them more comfortable when it comes time to be on camera.
Now that you have your research, use it to craft your questions, but write them in such a way that you don’t seem to know all the answers already. If the subject thinks you already know a lot about them, they are more likely to give surface-level answers, or they will dive deep into the subject without the proper context. Instead, phrase the question so that they have to fill in the relevant information. For example, instead of saying to a college professor, “Tell me about your work on the deontology of Immanuel Kant,” ask them “What do you study?” and “Who is Immanuel Kant?” By taking the perspective of the viewer, you will guide the subject through your questions in a more accessible way.
Think in terms of story
Videos featuring interviews are always better if you can create a story arc, even if it doesn’t seem like a typical “story.” Here are a few ways to think about your questions in ways that can build a story:
Beginning, Middle, End (“What happened to you first, next, and last?”)
Past, Present, Future (“What interested you in this subject, what are you doing now, and what do you hope to do next?”)
Problem - Solution (“What challenges did you overcome?”)
Transformation (“How are you different now than when you started?”)
Question - Answer (What did you want to know about the world, and what did you find?”)
Ultimately, your final edited interview should seek to create curiosity in the viewer at the beginning, reveal information over time to draw them in, and keep them interested until the end.
What is it, and what is it like?
To be both interesting and entertaining, a video interview should aim to be informational and emotional. In crafting questions, find ways to ask both “What is it?” and “What is it like?” to achieve both aspects.
“What is it” questions are like story exposition, providing the fact that your viewers need to know about the individual. These will be the tent poles of the final video. Start big picture with your subject (“Who are you and what do you do?”), then progressively move into the finer details of their experience.
“What is it like” questions are the character development of your interview and will help viewers connect with the subject. Questions like “How did it feel when…” or “Can you set the scene when…” help your interview subject tap into the emotional reactions to their experience.
Go in with more, prepare for less
When you are writing your questions, you will want to prepare more than you think you need because you never know what will work during the interview. Sometimes the subject will not have a good answer for your question or just won’t know what to say. The subject may also give very succinct answers. Be prepared to follow up with multiple questions about the same thing from multiple angles. One of my favorite ways to help subjects elaborate is to say, “Unpack that more. What do you mean by…?” People are usually willing to talk but might need additional prompting.
On the other side of the spectrum, some people give very long answers. As a result, you end up being unable to ask all of your questions within the time allotted. To prepare for this possibility, decide what your “must ask” questions are. If you find yourself in this situation, be ready to pivot and focus only on those key questions that will give you the essential answers.
Well-crafted questions are at the heart of any successful video interview. I have found that applying these principles to question writing consistently leads to a strong final product.
What do you think is crucial to writing interview questions?