April 21, 2015

Conducting Great Interviews: A Meta-Interview with Sarah Green

Alyce Currier


We haven’t toyed with the interview format that much here at Wistia, but we’ve enjoyed consuming great interviews from lots of other sources, and we know it’s an area where we want to up our game! For that reason, we’re challenging ourselves to make more video interviews over the coming months, and what better way to get started than with an expert in the art of the interview, Sarah Green of Harvard Business Review?

Sarah has hosted HBR’s Ideacast, a podcast series that routinely tops lists of business and management podcasts, since 2009. Since taking over the Ideacast, she’s interviewed tons of management experts in different fields, including big names like Martha Stewart and Eric Schmidt. We’re super stoked that she’ll be speaking at our conference, WistiaFest, this May!

In the video above, Sarah shared her thoughts on conducting interviews with four Wistians. Read on for even more interview tips: when (and when not) to use video, how to prepare interviewees, and some interview pitfalls to avoid!


What’s your favorite thing about doing interviews?

Sarah Green:

Talking to interesting people one on one. It’s so rare to get that kind of uninterrupted conversation with people.

I also like trying to think of questions no one has ever asked them before, or that will make them stop and take their time and think a little longer than usual before they respond. The highest compliment an interviewee can give me is, “Oh, I’ve never really thought about that before.”

“The highest compliment an interviewee can give me is, “Oh, I’ve never really thought about that before.”


What’s different about doing a video interview?

Sarah Green:

When a interview is recorded and transcribed, you can be very exploratory. You can let people ramble on and then you can fix it all with editing after the fact, for instance, inserting questions to break up long sections, or grouping their thoughts on a certain topic together so that it’s not as repetitive. You can ask more follow-up questions, too, because you know you can condense it later. It also doesn’t matter if they mumble, or stumble through their answers. It’s all very flexible.

With video, I find you can’t really explore, at least not in the time and budget we have. I’ve heard that some other online video makers will take an entire day with an expert to generate a 5-minute video. But we’re only spending about 90 minutes, and a lot of that is setup: makeup, mic-ing people, and so on.

By the time we’re actually recording the interview, I’m really just teeing them up to give quick, concise answers. If we want to change something, we’ll do a second take. At times, it can feel somewhat artificial or forced, but as the interviewer, you have to help make the guest feel comfortable.

I find that people are way more nervous doing a video interview. With a transcribed or audio interview, people forget you’re recording what they say. But people never forget they’ve got a lav mic clipped on and a giant camera in their face.

Because it’s much tougher to pull off a video interview, you have to choose your guests really carefully. Do they have charisma, are they clear and concise, do they talk with energy? If someone has a monotone voice or is tough to understand for whatever reason, it’s going to be hard to make it watchable no matter what you do and no matter how smart they are.

“Because it’s much tougher to pull off a video interview, you have to choose your guests really carefully.”

We did a video once with a guy who was absolutely brilliant, but I swear he did not blink, ever, while we were recording. It was actually really distracting in the final video because it was so unnatural. Fortunately, that’s why there are other formats!


What are some of your favorite interviews you’ve ever done?

Sarah Green:

I love talking with people who just have a ton of research and data at their fingertips. Examples would be Carol Dweck of Stanford, Joan Williams of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, and Heidi Grant Halvorson of Columbia. They’re really dynamic speakers and can also reel off fascinating research findings without missing a beat.

I also really love talking with people who’ve done remarkable things. For instance, Charles Casto, who worked at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, went to Japan to help after the tsunami, and talked to me about the Fukushima reactor that didn’t melt down. Not a lot of people know that story, but it is a great success story of how good management prevented a nuclear disaster and saved lives.

And Rick Ridgeway, a mountaineer who now works with Patagonia on sustainability issues, talked with me about what he learned about leading and resilience from climbing the world’s highest and most dangerous mountains, and was very honest in talking about an avalanche he caused that actually killed his best friend. They had to bury his friend on the mountain. When people are willing to share their lives with you that way — and especially when it’s a tough subject to talk about — you realize how lucky you are.

I’ve also talked with some big-name people. Martha Stewart. Eric Schmidt. A.G. Lafley. Interviewing someone like that is a totally different experience. It’s kind of an adrenaline rush, but it’s not as intimate. Those people are so poised and well-practiced in their answers it’s almost impossible to get them to tell you something they haven’t said before, even if you’re sure you’re asking fresh questions. At the same time, you know you’re going to end up with an interview that is really polished, because your guest is such a good speaker.


What are some interview pitfalls to avoid?

Sarah Green:

Oh man, there are so many. And I feel like I’ve learned them all by stepping into them, at some point or another. To give just a short list:

  • Yes-or-no questions. They’re never as interesting as “why” or “how” questions.
  • Winging it. You can improvise a bit, but it’s really helpful to prepare in advance.
  • Not writing enough questions. Once, a guest gave me super short answers and we ran through the entire interview in just 5 minutes! I now always write more questions than I think I will need.
  • Not really listening. Sometimes guests say really tantalizing things that just beg to be followed up on, and if you’re not really listening and just trying to get through your list of questions, you’ll miss something interesting. Also, if you don’t listen carefully then you run the risk of asking a question the guest has essentially already answered, which is always awkward.
  • “Gotcha” questions are totally overrated. The audience doesn’t want to watch you tripping someone up. Sure, ask tough questions, but make sure you focus on asking what the audience would want to know. For example, when I interviewed Martha Stewart, I didn’t ask her about jail. Why bother? She’s answered that question a million times, and we were at a marketing conference. That audience was much more interested in hearing her talk about branding.
  • Trying to get someone to say something specific. This is one that I fell into a lot in the beginning. I would try to tee my guest up with a question, and it would just not work. Now, when I want people to say something specific, or tell a specific story, I just say, “You have a great story about X. Tell us about that.”
“Be fair to your guest and interesting to your audience, and all will be well.”


How do you measure content success at HBR?

Sarah Green:

We have a few ways of measuring success. First, we’re a mission-driven organization, so it’s really important for us to know that our content is improving the practice of management, and the impact of management, around the world.

That kind of impact is really hard to measure quantitatively, so we sort of track it by anecdote. After publishing with us, we’ve had people get invited to 10 Downing Street, the White House, Special Operations Command, the UN. We’ve had authors get emails from senior executives — for instance, Sheryl Sandberg emailed one of my authors to say she really enjoyed his HBR essays. Or a reader will email and say, “I read this piece and I’m going to change the way we do performance reviews as a result” or some such thing. We keep a list of all of those stories. It’s our happy-impact list.

“The easiest things to measure are really not the most useful in telling us whether we’re fulfilling our mission.”

But of course, we do track quantitative metrics too. The things we track the most right now are engagement metrics: repeat visitors, time-on-page, recirc, shares, subscription sign-ups and renewals. The easiest things to measure — uniques and number of comments — are really not the most useful in telling us whether we’re fulfilling our mission.

What gets us up in the morning is ridding the world of bad management. If 300,000 people clicked a link, all that really tells you is that the headline resonated with people. That’s a good start — but it’s just a start.

Do you have any go-to methods for preparing for interviews? How do you decide whether to use a video, text, audio, or a mix?

Mailing list sign-up form

Sign up to get Wistia’s best
and freshest content.

More of a social being? We’re also on Instagram and Twitter.