The Hidden Power of Interviews (and How to Get Better at Them)

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I used to hate interviews. I stammered, I inserted words such as “like” and “um” a whole bunch, and my voice pitched up at the end of nearly every sentence.

I sounded exactly like what I was—a young 20-something female with insecurity about my ideas.

Then I started listening to the interviews and analyzing them. I paid attention to everything—from the sound of my voice, to the way it pitched up, to my breathing, looking at the construction of sentences, and trying to understand the moments when it felt like I got insecure versus when I was the strongest and most confident.

Each time, I focused on something I could improve. My voice lowered, which made me sound more confident and also feel more confident.  I slowed down. I added more breath, which built calm. I layered back in some room to giggle and rush through my words, because when I get excited I speed up—and I like that authenticity. It also occurred to me that I like doing interviews at a particular time of day—early afternoon, when I’m starting to feel very chatty and I want to talk to people. I started scheduling them for times that fit well with my brain schedule.

Getting better at interviews.

To get better at interviews, and presentations—the best way is to do them over and over again.

Grab a friend (or a video) and set yourself up with a mock interview. Chat for twenty minutes. Share your ideas. Let yourself ramble. Then, watch the tape. Ask for feedback. Where were you your best? What made you shine? What parts could improve? Work out each of the little stumbles until you feel comfortable with the sequence of changes.

Find out what makes you feel good. Set up a room, an environment, a location that you love. Maybe you scout out the person beforehand. Maybe you have your favorite cup of coffee–and your favorite glass of wine before hand. Maybe you need to warm-up to conversation with a trusted friend before you start.

Perhaps you write out ideas in advance so you have a cue sheet or you’ve done some advance thinking. I like to ask my interviewer for a general topic list and sample questions so I know what area(s) we’ll be chatting about. Sometimes I’ll write out an essay answer the night before to the questions–and while I won’t read it out loud the next day (it sounds terrible on tape, FYI), just the act of doing the thinking helps set me up for good stuff later.

Learn to love the process: self-reflection and being able to identify how to make changes is powerful.

Why I love interviews.

Now, somewhat surprisingly, I actually enjoy listening to the interviews I get to do.

Beyond the technical considerations and feedback, it becomes a place to test ideas and learn from the medium of voice. For some reason, the way I explain things out loud is different than in print—and so the spoken word becomes a place for me to learn more about my thoughts.

Listening to interviews is a chance to mine your mind for thoughts and ideas, and write out some of the ways you construct sentences, thoughts, and observations. You can pay attention to when you get excited, where you stumble, what you get frustrated or stumped by, and what comes easily to you.

A good interviewer will ask thought-provoking questions, and often I’ll stumble into a new area of ideas that I haven’t written about yet, yielding juicy content and rich ideas for future essays. I discovered that the ideas we unearthed were seeds waiting to be watered, new ideas to plant. I still love writing far more than I love interviews. I prefer to be alone, with my thoughts and ideas, sharing my brain through this pen-and-paper medium. When you read my posts and my books, you get my brain.

But interviews can be potent sources of discovery and idea generation.

This week, I was interviewed by Joel Zaslosfky over on the Value of Simple podcast. We talk about identity, how difficult it is to define yourself and what you do, the drawbacks of storytelling, and the power of addiction in both positive and negative terms. If you have a half an hour today, download it and take a listen and let me know what you think.

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6 Responses to The Hidden Power of Interviews (and How to Get Better at Them)

  1. Jeff Hirz says:

    Love the self-analysis, Sarah. I think being put on the spot is always helpful in terms of self-development, whether you’re giving an interview, a speech, or just having a one-on-one conversation – they’re all great sources of self-discovery and a way to generate ideas.

    • Sarah says:

      Jeff, I totally agree. I used to be so nervous about getting my thoughts together before speaking up; and I realized that speaking up taught me about being more fluid and articulate with my thoughts: the actual act of doing it made me better. And the recording is a surprisingly great way to generate new ideas.

  2. Todd Schnick says:

    Well, we learn from you too….

    • Sarah says:

      Amazing. I forgot about that–isn’t that funny? Right, and then other people get to learn!!

      So much of my writing/talking/learning is in pursuit of growing myself and becoming a better person, but that’s all hand-in-hand with offering more value to the world.

      Thanks, Todd. Loved my interview with you recently.


  3. I’ve never listened to your interviews from “back in the day,” Sarah, so I have no historical context other than what you write about here. However, I can say that your current verbal prowess is off the charts! Like professional public speaker good with the level of clarity and polish you bring to an interview.

    Thanks again for being my guest on Smart and Simple Matters!

    P.S. I pulled out a few more verbal gems than I quoted in the show notes for my curated stash of words that I dig. And if anyone reading this wants some great resources on how to facilitate an interview, let me know. I have a nice little spreadsheet ready to send you with links, context, and other good stuff.

    P.P.S. I made a donation to charity:water in your name as another token of my appreciation for coming on the show (and for giving people such great insight to absorb).

    • Sarah says:

      Oh my gosh! Joel, thank you SO MUCH. People keep telling me that they donate to Charity: Water in my name and it makes me so honored (and inspired) that we can all keep giving back to the world in this way.

      I love the gems. And the resources for facilitating an interview — I’m SURE that people would love to know more about that. I’m always inspired by the likes of you, Barrett Brooks, Todd Henry, Todd Schtick (and many more), who have such eloquent and practiced and delightful voices to listen to over the radio.