What do hiring managers and investigative reporters have in common? More than you may realize. Whether out in the field or inside a fluorescent-lit office, they both need to open interviewees up quickly, ask the tough questions, and suss out deception.
But while reporters have ample opportunities to hone their interview skills, as a manager you may only do it a few times a year. Even still, Brant Houston, who teaches investigative and advanced reporting at the University of Illinois, says it’s natural to overestimate your abilities.
“Everybody thinks they’re an interviewer, that interviewing’s easy,” he says. “Good interviewing takes practice.”
So what can you learn from the pros about digging for the truth in an interview? Houston and others explain how what they do can translate to hiring managers.
Job interviews are stressful. Candidates often tense up because they’re worried about saying the wrong thing. It’s not much different from when they sit down with reporters. Houston, who served as the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors for 10 years, is a fan of walk-and-talks to put interviewees at ease. He says there’s something about being in motion that loosens people up. Even if you can’t create a West Wing-style moment, he says that just walking to another room for coffee can do the trick. As someone who considers interviews a form of theater, Houston explains that you’ve “just moved from formality to improv.”
Tisha Thompson, an award-winning investigative reporter for NBC-4 in Washington, D.C., says that if you ask a two-part question, interviewees will always pick the easier half to answer—so make sure you’re only asking one thing at a time.
She also says not to give the answer away before you even ask the question. For instance, if you’re hiring for a public relations job, ask, “What makes a good publicist?” rather than, “A good publicist is flexible and motivated. How does your experience reflect that?” Thompson says the other basic reporting rules also apply: Avoid yes-or-no questions, listen carefully, and don’t interrupt people mid-answer. And Houston says you’ll get better information if you ask people to tell stories rather than strictly answering questions.
Investigative reporters sometimes have to coax the truth out of uncooperative sources. Job candidates can be difficult to unravel, too—but usually because they’re so eager to make a good impression. If you suspect an interviewee is lying, Houston recommends asking the same question three different ways, or pressing for more details. “If someone is being deceptive or dodging stuff, it’s really hard for them to tell the same story three times in a row,” he adds.
Michael J. Berens, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, says that doing your homework will help you ask better questions and maximize your time during the interview, since you won’t need people to recite their biographies.
Don’t simply read a resume, either. By the time Thompson heads into an interview, she already knows “everything I can possibly know” about her subject. She’s looked at their social media, internalized their bios, poked around LinkedIn, and read anything else that’s been written about them. As Houston puts it: “Go the extra mile in figuring out who they are.”
In preparing for interviews, Berens has received resumes and bios that range from exaggerated to outright fabrications. That’s why he verifies everything he can, including professional licenses. “What I really watch for carefully are superlatives,” he says. “‘I’m the greatest. I’m the best. I was No. 1.’ Whenever someone says something like that, that’s when I really check it out.”
“I do not assume that anything I see is real until I find proof of it,” adds Thompson. That’s why she confirms whether an interviewee’s academic major—or even an entire school—actually exists. “Even if you have a really good candidate,” she says, “you have to challenge the good guy as much as the bad guy.”
If you stare down at a notebook, scribbling your way through the interview, Houston says you’ll miss important visual cues and make an interviewee even more tense. He recommends taking minimal notes, and saying something like, “I just want to jot that down” when you do. After the interview ends, immediately type up your impressions and any crucial information. He suggests waiting 24 hours, then reading everything over. “So many people take notes and don’t ever read them,” he says. “That is a key thing.”
Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer who often covers topics in business, culture, and higher education. Follow her on Twitter @writermolly.