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November 28, 2019

Why the Right Questions Matter: Our Expert Interview With Dean Nelson

Rachel Salaman


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In his book about interviewing, "Talk to Me," journalist Dean Nelson included a chapter toward the end titled "Check Your Ego at the Door." This useful advice was foremost in my mind when we recorded our Expert Interview podcast together.

Here I was, a journalist with more than two decades of interviews behind me, asking questions about the best way to conduct an interview. It felt a little odd. 

An opinion bubbled up inside me with every tip or anecdote shared by Nelson (a journalist himself), and I had to actively prevent myself from chiming in with my own experiences.

After all, an interview is about drawing out insight and information from the interviewee. It’s guided and purposeful. Whereas a conversation is a free-flowing, unstructured exchange.

In this clip from our Expert Interview podcast, Nelson tells us what he thinks makes a good interview, in any circumstance.

Interview vs. Conversation

As the director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University, Nelson has some thoughts on this. "I think a conversation is where you’re just spending some time together, getting to know one another or maybe just having some relational time," he says.

"An interview is more focused, where you have an outcome in mind, where you need an insight into this person’s personality to see if this is someone you want to hire, or if there’s an anecdote or a story that can illustrate a point that this person is trying to make."

But after our recording, I found myself reflecting on the distinction between a conversation and an interview. Are they really so different? They both involve questions and answers, building rapport, and listening well. And they both move forward through the gentle excavation of opinion, knowledge and ideas.

Getting It Wrong...

Sometimes, friends joke that when they first met me, I gave them a "grilling" or "the third degree." Clearly, my attempts at getting to know them landed with all the joy of a police interview. 

At the opposite extreme, I’ve been in job interviews where the prospective employers thought a casual chat would do the trick.

One memorable interview – for an editorial position – took place in a sports bar in New Jersey, my glass of water standing demurely beside my interviewers’ beer bottles on the table between us. While I proactively explained my suitability for the role, their eyes flicked up to the TV blasting out a sports game above my head.

Questions Are Key

Regardless of the environment, it’s the questions that matter in any interview or conversation. They’re the architecture that determines the shape of the live interaction, so it’s helpful to consider how they work.

When I was planning my podcast interview with Nelson, I sketched out a series of open questions. They were designed to give him jumping-off points to elaborate on his thoughts.

Analyzing these questions now, I see that most of them start with the word "what." I ask him, "What makes a good interview? What difference does our body language make?" And, of course, "What are some successful ways to frame a question? 

Answering that one, Nelson agreed that open-ended questions will elicit the best answers, especially questions beginning with "what," "why," and "how."

Using "Why" Well

But Nelson did warn that open-ended questions can be too broad.

"My father was in World War II and he was on a weather station on the Arctic Circle. He and a bunch of other soldiers were up there for a year giving hourly weather reports," Nelson relates, as an example. "If you want to absolutely paralyze him with a question, ask him what it was like being on the Arctic Circle for a year."

"He will just hem and haw and stutter. How do you answer the question, ‘What was it like?’ Well, the answer to that question is, ‘It’s not like anything!’"

If you want a better answer from his dad, Nelson continues, you need to be more focused. For instance, "What did you do for food while you were on the Arctic Circle for a year?" or, "What kind of contact did you have with the U.S. or with family while you were there?"

Good Interview Questions

This is a useful tip for conversations and interviews alike. Be specific about what you’re asking, but not limiting.

In a job interview, this might mean asking candidates, "How does this role align with your career goals?" rather than, "Does this position help with your career goals?" 

The second question needs only a "yes" or "no" answer, narrowing the path of discussion. The first question, however, invites the interviewee to elaborate from the outset. Asking better questions gives better answers.

Listen to Our Interview With Dean Nelson

Discover fascinating insights from some of the world’s leading business figures with our monthly Expert Interviews, available in text or as 30-minute audio downloads.

Mind Tools Premium and Corporate members can listen to the full 30-minute interview with Dean Nelson in the Mind Tools Club.

If you're not a Mind Tools member, you can join the Mind Tools Club and gain access to our 2,400+ resources, including 200+ Expert Interviews.

What are your top interviewing tips? Join the discussion below! 

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4 comments on “Why the Right Questions Matter: Our Expert Interview With Dean Nelson”

  1. Just launched the first newsletter for our church seniors called " Over the Hilltop". Sure could have used some interview tips before this
    publication! Never too late to learn takes on new meaning now....wish I had thought to call Dean first!

    1. Well done for launching that newsletter.
      That's how we learn, isn't it? 😉 At least, now you know for next time...

  2. Hello Mr. Nelson:
    After hearing you interviewed on NPR a while back, I purchased Talk to Me with an interest in insights into good interviews. I'm in the middle of my second time through that book. Beginning July 1, I will begin my year as president of the Encinitas Rotary Club. I'd love to have you as a guest speaker for one of our club meetings. Currently, we are meeting via Zoom on Wednesdays at noon. Speakers usually go for about 30 minutes and we get 50 - 60 attendees each week. Would you be willing to join us for one of our meetings in the summer or fall? I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks, Kerry

    1. Hi Kerry,
      Thanks for reaching out to us and I know how important asking the right questions makes a difference; both in interviews and exchanges with others. It is great that you want Mr Nelson to speak at your Club. I suggest you contact him directly via the usual social media channels or directly via his website. Wishing you all the best and good luck with your event.

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