It should be simple.
The expert has the knowledge you need to create your video, blog post, or presentation. He’s steeped in his subject. So it shouldn’t be too hard to extract:
- The compelling big picture that excites people
- Enough accurate detail for credibility.
But expert interviews can be tricky. Ever felt like you’re drowning in information? Do you struggle to keep the conversation on track? Yes? Then this post is for you.
Here are 4 ways to surf the information tidal wave. So you guide the conversation, make sense of it and get the information you need.
1. You’re washed away by an information-hosepipe – on full blast
Picture the scene.
The expert strides in and dumps armfuls of paper, files and books on the table. You’re left to find the specific pages and precise paragraphs you need. Then work out how the ideas link together. And glean whatever insights you can.
Is this how some expert interviews feel? One dirty, great big hit-and-run information dump? A hosepipe on full blast?
But here’s the thing.
Conversations are a two-way process. So play your part in managing the information tsunami. That means getting involved from the outset.
So here are two techniques to kick-start the interview.
Think of them as hosepipe attachments. Nozzles that help control the volume, pressure and direction of information coming your way.
Hosepipe nozzle #1 – Share your goal
Sssh … Whisper it.
The conversation isn’t just about what experts know – although they understandably think it is. It’s about what you can do with the knowledge they share. So make this clear from the outset.
Show them similar finished outputs – videos, posts etc – so they can see in advance:
- How high-level or detailed the information is
- The length of the video, post, interactive presentation
Be overt. Tell them this means you only need a small amount of the vast amount they know.
Sharing the goal is a reminder – the interview is not an end in itself. It’s in service of creating something new. Now they have something tangible to bear in mind during the conversation. So they can be more helpful.
This is after all the reason behind the information dump. The expert wants to make a difference. But in trying to help they leave you drowning, not waving.
Hosepipe nozzle #2 – Position the expert as a super-user
It’s not just the amount of information. The level of information also matters. Abstract theories without the basic facts, principles, procedures etc is gobbledegook to novices.
So explain that the expert’s experience and know-how make him a super-user. But to create your content you may need information he first learnt as a basic, intermediate or perhaps advanced user. Information he now takes for granted, so doesn’t talk about. But that this is the very stuff you need to understand his subject.
Now he’s primed to consider your needs:
- What you need to do with the information he shares
- The level of information you need in order to understand
2. You feel lost in the first five minutes
Experts often dive straight into the nitty gritty. Leaving you struggling to make sense of it.
But they’re blissfully unaware it’s unhelpful.
In fact, it’s the worst way to start a conversation about unfamiliar and/or complex subjects. Because the brain needs the big picture before it can make sense of the minutiae. It needs something to hook the details onto.
Normally, if we don’t know the gist – the meaning – of information we are unlikely to pay attention to its details.
Ask to see the big picture first
So start by explaining what you need.
It would be helpful to establish the big picture first. Why XYZ matters, the point of the (skill, product, service, business model, methodology) what problems it solves, before we go into details.
Use a metaphor that explains why.
The big picture matters. Because details like composition and palette are meaningless if you haven’t first seen the whole landscape or portrait. And zooming in on brush strokes or pixels is mind-numbingly irrelevant.
You need context to make sense of the detail.
3. The expert loses you with vague ideas or dense detail
How do you keep the interview on track?
You’ve got the big picture. Now you need to navigate your way through the details.
To create that video or post you need a balance of information – ideas, theories, general themes supported by real life details and concrete applications.
But experts – depending on their subject – often focus on one or the other type of information.
Sometimes they talk at length about abstract theories and high level ideas. But the problem is you’ve no idea how it works in real life.
It’s a bit like looking at the blueprint of a machine. You can see the intersecting lines on the paper. But you’re clueless what it looks like in 3D, how the bits fit together and move. Or how you actually use it. You need concrete details to make sense of the diagram, to bring it to life.
And sometimes experts do the opposite. They get stuck in the nitty gritty detail without giving the bigger picture or context.
The expert zooms in on an isolated machine part. You get a detailed description of how the cogs move, lubrication types and the merits of different metal alloys. But what’s the part’s purpose? Why is it important? And how does it contribute to the working of the whole machine? The context that gives the part meaning is missing.
So what can you do to get the balance of abstract ideas and concrete details right?
Where is the expert? Up in the loft or down in the basement?
When you feel bamboozled it’s easy to blame yourself – I’m soooo lost – or feel irritated – What the hell is he on about?
But to stop negative emotions derailing the conversation you need to stay rational. So name it to tame it with a house metaphor.
When there’s too much abstract theory, without concrete details to make it real, tell yourself:
OK, he’s up in the loft – lots of lofty ideas without enough grounding to make any sense.
Up in the loft is like being at altitude – there’s lots of fluffy clouds, not much substance and you feel a bit dizzy.
When there’s endless details, without context to give it meaning, tell yourself:
Ah, now he’s down in the basement, in his overalls, obsessing and tinkering with the minutiae.
Down in the basement it’s dark and dingy, you feel hemmed in by details. You need to zoom out and get some perspective to understand what it means.
So you’ve named the problem (in your head). And conquered your negative reactions – feeling stupid or irritated takes a back seat. This is a rational challenge to solve.
Now you need to take action.
Questions to keep the interview on track
To get him down from the loft you need to uncover supporting facts and concrete detail.
Ask chunking down questions
- Can you give me a real life example that illustrates the point?
- Who uses this ….?
- When do they need this …?
- How exactly do people use this …?
- How do you do that?
- Why does that happen?
- What happens when…?
- What, specifically…?
- Tell me more about…
- What’s the root cause of all this?
To get him up from the basement you need to establish context and overall meaning.
Ask chunking up questions
- What does this mean?
- Let’s look at the bigger picture…
- What is this an example of …?
- What is this a part of…?
- How does that relate to…?
- What’s the purpose of ….?
- What’s the intention of …?
- What’s the result of this…?
- What is this trying to achieve?
- Who is this for?
- Why do they need it?
Succeed where King Canute failed (sort of)
OK, so it’s not as simple as holding back waves of information. But you do need to guide the conversation. So you make sense of it and get the information you need. I’ve suggested 4 ways to do this:
- Share your goal. Remind the expert what you need to do with his know-how.
- Position him as a super-user. Explain information he takes for granted – and so no longer talks about – helps you understand.
- Ask to see the big picture first. Stop him diving straight into details without a context.
- Ask chunking up and down questions for a balance of ideas and facts.
Expert interviews sometimes feel like a one-on-one tussle.
Use these tools to work with the expert and solve the challenge together.