Four tips for expert interviews

Editor’s note: Maxwell Wang is founder of qualitative marketing research firm RESEARCHISM, China.

Engaging in a smooth conversation with industry experts is no easy feat. To make the conversation stand out, spark insights and delve into profound content adds difficulty to an already challenging situation and requires a careful approach.

Drawing from years of consulting experience and numerous expert interviews across diverse sectors, we find the following tips might prove useful for those tasked with expert interviews.

  1. Establish equality, not superiority.
  2. Diplomacy in differing opinions: Be confident, not arrogant.
  3. Substance over performance.
  4. Thorough preparation for richer insights.

Read on to learn more about each tip.

1. Establish equality, not superiority

Remember that the expert is a specialist in their field, while you excel in the art of interviews. The moderator's proficiency lies in preventing the expert from dominating the conversation entirely and the key is to establish a shared ground for conversation while respecting the expert's domain. 

Reflecting on a past encounter with a renowned chef during a channel study for Unilever, it became apparent that projecting expertise in interviews is crucial. The chef, confident in his culinary mastery, asked to test my knowledge with a secret sauce challenge. While I may not be a cooking aficionado, I politely declined, emphasizing the purpose of conversation is to leverage each one’s expertise in cooking and interviews respectively for inspiring ideas. Redirecting the conversation to our shared goal, we smoothly transitioned to the main interview from the restaurant kitchen to the front dining area and set the tone for the following productive discussion. 

Every expert interviewed has spent years mastering their domain. When dealing with technical issues, involving professionals who understand the intricacies is essential. However, in business consultation interviews, it's vital to bring the expert into your professional domain to avoid losing track and deviating from the initial interview purpose. 

2. Diplomacy in differing opinions: Be confident, not arrogant

Being on equal footing with experts doesn't mean adopting a confrontational approach. After all, seeking their insights is what to be expected from the interview. So, never let it seem like you believe you're more intelligent than the expert.

When faced with differing viewpoints, framing them through third-party statements allows for objective exploration. For example, posing questions like "Some argue that..." maintains an unbiased stance, fostering an environment for open dialogue. 

Experts may digress, talking expressively on topics they find familiar and possess proficiency in. Instead of abruptly interrupting, subtle facial expressions can convey your interest or lack thereof. Non-verbal communication is crucial for maintaining politeness and taking the control, making face-to-face interviews far more effective than video or phone calls.

3. Substance over performance

Unless it's an entertainment show or a networking opportunity, aim for meaningful content output rather than performative shows. A productive interview should deliver in-depth, relevant content tied to the consulting project, not necessarily the expert's field depth. 

Conversations may flow seamlessly for an hour, with both parties engaged, but this doesn't guarantee a successful interview. A fruitful interview transcends mere engagement. Instead, it demands interviewers’ rapid information processing and monitoring the progress, by asking themselves, is the expert's content aligning with the interview objective? Are experts confirming or challenging to-be-answered assumptions? If the expert veers off-topic, how to smoothly guide them back? Is the depth of their responses sufficient? Is it time to transition to the next topic, etc.? In other words, the focus remains on purposeful content output.

4. Thorough preparation for richer insights

Preparation is not about achieving the same level of expertise, but rather about gaining valuable insights. An expert interview isn't a substitute for an in-depth industry crash course. If you need to familiarize yourself with a new industry, a skilled consultant should be able to do that through desk research.

The value of an expert interview lies in uncovering the viewpoints and attitudes behind publicly available information. Even with experts who are generally accommodating, meaningful dialogue is challenging when you lack a baseline understanding of the industry. Therefore, thorough preparation sets the stage for extracting valuable insights, making expert interviews more than just informational exchanges. Missing such opportunity due to inadequate groundwork makes it difficult to schedule another expert interview for compensation.

In summary, expert interviews in consultation demand finesse, blending confidence with humility and strategic planning. A successful dialogue doesn't happen by chance; it results from meticulous preparation, adept navigation and a focus on extracting insights aligned with consultation objectives.