How to Interview Candidates Like a Reporter

February 3, 2014

For the past two decades, I've been writing business articles for publications as diverse as Wired and Electronic Business. As research for those articles, I've had to interview hundreds of CEOs and other C-level execs.

The challenge with such interviews is similar to the challenge hiring managers have when interviewing savvy candidates: getting the interviewee to go "off message" and communicate something that's meaningful and interesting.

CEOs, like politicians, have a set of "talking points" that they use whenever interviewed by the press. Similarly, savvy job candidates package their experience into simple talking points that make them seem hireable.

However, the reporter's job isn't to be the CEO's mouthpiece but to write an original story with an original perspective.  Similarly, the hiring manager's job isn't to swallow the candidate's talking points but rather to find out what the candidate is really like.

As a reporter, I used a specific pattern of questioning that always seemed to get the "media-ready" CEOs off message. Since it works with experienced CEOs, it will undoubtedly work with almost all your job candidates:

Step 1. Lob a Softball

When people prepare for an interview, they mentally rank what they want to say according to importance. Since they're determined to communicate that message, the first thing you ask is a question that will get those messages out. Examples:

  • "What are the three most important things about...?"
  • "What is the most interesting thing about..."
  • "What do you really want me to know about..."

This question accomplishes two things:

  1. It gets the rote stuff out of the way quickly, so that you can move on to subject matter that's not pre-packaged.
  2. It relaxes the interviewee to get those top line messages out without the hassle of segueing to them.

Please note that the goal of the softball is NOT to get useful information but rather to set up for the next step.  In a job interview, the softball questions are stuff like:

  • Why we should hire you?
  • What are the most important skills you bring?
  • How can you help us to...?

Yes, you'll get a prepared answer that will probably be marginally useful. However, let the interviewee talk as long as he or she likes then move to the next step.

Step 2. Pitch a Hardball

Once the interviewee is relaxed and feels that he or she has communicated the top-line, you ask a very specific question, based on your research, which delves deeply into something that you find interesting or important. Examples:

  • "Exactly what happened when...?"
  • "Exactly why did you decide...?"
  • "What were the specifics of...?"

The more pointed and surprising the question, more likely it is that you'll get an honest and illuminating response.

For example, once I was interviewing a CMO for an article about a company's legal problems.  In response to my opening softball, the CMO spent five minutes talking about product features.

I waited patiently for him to complete his prepared pitch, then asked: "What damage control did you need to do when you learned that your former CEO had been arrested?"

Because he was relaxed, the question clearly caught him by surprise, but I got an honest answer. He explained how horrible it had been calling customers to give them the heads up.  This was real-life drama that both made for a good story and told me what this guy was really like when he wasn't giving a sales pitch.

The same technique would apply to job interviewing. For example, suppose you notice that there's an eight-month gap in the candidate's job history and want to know what that is all about.

If you ask about gap directly ("why is there a gap?"), you'll likely get a prepared answer. ("I was looking for the right job where I could contribute the most.")  However, you're more likely to learn something interesting about the candidate if, if after you lob the softball, you ask something very specific like:

  • Walk me through your typical day when you were in between jobs.
  • What were you doing when you learned that [former employer] had made you an offer?
  • After you left [former employer], who did you keep in touch with and why?

Step 3. Throw a Curve Ball

A curve ball is a speculative question that projects the interviewee into a hypothetic situation.  Examples:

  • "Suppose that you were...?"
  • "What if it happened that...?"
  • "How would you handle...?"

For example, business articles often address how companies plan to react to trends. I discovered that if I asked about a company's specific reaction to a trend (or the failure of the trend to develop), I'd get a more interesting (i.e. unprepared) answer if I asked it immediately after the softball-hardball sequence.

The reason is simple, the sudden appearance of a speculative question at this point keeps the interviewee off balance and more likely to continue "speaking from the heart."

In a job interview, this would be the time to ask the candidate to project himself or herself into the job roles that you need filled.  As with the hardball question, the more specific you can be, the less likely it is that you'll get a canned response.  Examples:

  • "If you were confronted with...?"
  • "Explain how you'd handle...?"
  • "What would be your thought process, if...?"

Once you've gotten your answer, you go back to Step 1 and ask another softball, which allows the candidate to relax again, and repeat the pattern until you're satisfied that you've learned something real about the candidate.

Please note that the questions I've suggested at each stage of the job interview are not, in themselves, atypical of job interviews.  What's important is:

1. Making the softball question as easy to answer as possible.

2. Making the hardball and curveball questions so specific that it's difficult for the interview to segue.

3. Adhering to a repeating softball-hardball-curveball pattern so that the interviewee remains off balance.

I'm not saying it will work all the time, but since it works with media-trained C-level, it will work with your average well-prepared job candidate.

Author bio: Geoffrey James is an award-winning columnist for Inc.com and the author of Business Without The Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need To Know.

* image by IAEA Imagebank

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