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Don't Interview In Sandals...and other tips to get into character

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

In qualitative interviewing, the data collection tool is the interviewer, not the interview guide.

The first time I heard that, I thought, “Hey, don’t call me a tool. Rude!”

But it makes sense. People only share things with other people when there is a good vibe. So, it is up to the interviewer to read the room and bring the right energy to each interview. In evaluation, it is crucial to get the tone right immediately. Many people have had negative experiences with evaluation in the past and are already skeptical. It is important to address a potential sour aftertaste and set a new tone.

If I am too stiff and formal, interviewees may recoil into their turtle shells. Their responses may lack specificity and the resulting data may be challenging to analyze and use. On the other hand, if I show up as an overly friendly camp counsellor, I might appear inexperienced, intrusive, and needy. As a result, interviewees might over-share and regret it later or feel more pressure to tell me what they think I want to hear (social desirability bias). For authentic and consensual sharing, getting the vibe right is critical.

To get the vibe right, I get into character. Before I share my steps, I want to acknowledge two things:

  1. Humans have diverse bodies that feel and do differently. There is no one right way of being an interviewer. And many nuances in communication differ across cultures and communities. So, what works for me now will not work for me forever or feel right for everyone. I only speak from my experience as an example, not as a prescription. You do you!

  2. My ritual is super awkward. Every step is cringeworthy. While I would encourage anyone to try, I will be the first to admit that the whole process is awful — truly a necessary evil.

Ready? Ok, deep breath, and let's go.


Before the Interview

Ahead of every upcoming interview, I practice my questions with a buddy and record the practice:

  • For an in-person interview, I video record an in-person practice.

  • For an online interview, I record digital practice (e.g., a Zoom recording).

  • For a phone interview, I record the audio from my practice.

Then, I watch or listen to the recordings. Here's pay attention to:

1. Audio

  • Pacing When I am nervous, I sprint through my questions and arrive at the end of the interview out of breath. But, when I am engrossed in someone's story, I overstay my welcome with too many prompts. So, I watch to see where I rush and meander. Then, I adjust to get a good rhythm for the interview context.

  • Tone People read different things into vocal registers (for better or worse). So, I listen for anything that comes off as inappropriate for the context. Rather than engage in tone policing, my goal is to sound interested.

  • Affirming Noises I add all kinds of affirming sounds into my interviews to show that I am listening. Because saying everyday things like, "You're right," or "Great" can contribute to bias in the interview, I instead make little encouraging but noncommittal noises. My go-to noises are "mhm" and "oh." But I have been known to add a "gotcha" now and then. Of course, you probably make your own noises too. These noises are often involuntary and fall somewhere on a scale of helpful to annoying. So, I practice and adjust for each context:

    • For phone-based interviews, I practice adding more of these noises because the interviewee cannot see me.

    • For in-person interviews, I practice alternating between a body language gesture and a noise to show engagement.

    • For online or on-camera interviews, I practice making no noise. These noises are a painful way to ruin the audio. An online platform will detect my noise and then not capture the interviewee's audio. In a video, a rogue "mhm" is difficult to edit out and weird to hear later.

2. Facial Expressions

It has taken me years to work on a resting face that doesn't give away what I think or feel. What always gives me away is:

  • Skeptical eyebrows

  • Not-buying-it pursed lips

So, I watch for facial expressions that may lead the interviewee in a particular direction during our conversation. While I want to show that I am engaged, I don't want to make anyone feel judged or overly validated. This may contribute to social desirability bias (the interviewee positioning their responses to please me). So, I watch to see if/when these facial giveaways happen in the interview and make a mental note to practice my natural face around questions that might trip me up (e.g., topics I am super interested in).

3. Body Language

When the COVID-19 pandemic happened, my first online interviews flopped. My rhythm was off, and my gestures did not translate. Everything was just awkward...and stuck on mute. That's when I realized that my "go-to" interview techniques have everything to do with how I interact with another human in a particular space. So, I had to work on bringing an energetic presence into an online platform. Three years of Zoom interviews later, I now have to work on getting the lower half of my body back into an interview. Here's how I prepare:

I work from my head down to my toes and focus on the following:

  • Head and neck: Most of my non-verbal prompts happen with nodding and tilting. To show that I am listening, I nod along. This is a great tool when trying to refrain from my verbal "mhm" sound or conducting an online interview since the rest of my body is not visible. For example, if I want to inquire more about a particular topic without interrupting someone's story, I might tilt my head to the side to signal uncertainty or interest. This move pairs well with a verbal "oh?" I like to practice these gestures to avoid overdoing them and becoming a bobblehead during interviews.

  • Shoulders: When unsure or anxious, my shoulders crawl up to my ears and get stuck in a stiff "oh no!" posture. So, I practice relaxing my shoulders to avoid looking panicked - especially online when this is typically where my frame cuts off.

  • Back and belly: Breathing makes all the difference in my tone and pacing. If I can't get a good flow, my questions will come out stiff or unsure, and my pacing will be all wrong. So, my posture has to support big belly breathing.

I avoid wearing tight pants to an interview. The one upside of an online interview is that I can wear my comfiest sweatpants.
  • Arms and hands: I talk with my hands. It's just who I am. So, I bring energy into an interview with uncrossed arms and hand gestures. Of course, as a hand-talker, I can get carried away. When the focus should be on the interviewee and not me, I practice refining my oomph to encourage conversation without pulling focus. Depending on the webcam position for an online interview, my hands and arms may or may not come into frame. So, I have to factor in the camera angle too. To free up my hands and arms, I do not take notes during an interview (when possible). This is a contentious style choice that does not work for everyone. However, this is my preference and relies on active listening and disciplined post-interview memo writing.

  • Legs and feet: To cross or uncross my legs, that is a contentious question. Signalling "openness" with legs is weird. And yet, my favourite prompt of all time is not a question; it is a change of seat position. Like a semicolon in an essay, I only get to do this once and have that dramatic effect. At a critical moment in the interview, I will uncross my legs and lean forward. That's it. Silent and simple. Unfortunately, I am squirmy and often find sitting in the same position challenging. So, I practice finding stillness while interviewing so that - if I need it - I can pull this move out and not be confused with restlessness.

Once I go through the recordings and check my vibe, I make notes to myself and adjust. It always takes me a few tries to get over the initial "Is that really what I sound like?" and "Oh, why is my face like that" reactions. But, over time and with more practice, it starts to feel less icky and more valuable.

During the Interview

My character work continues into the interview. Specifically, I do two things during the interview to stay in character.

1. Adjust for context

Before the person comes online or into the space, I check out my surroundings. What does the room feel like? What environmental factors are working with or against me (e.g., is construction nearby)? Then, when the other person joins, I check their energy. Are they rushing from somewhere? Do they seem nervous, frazzled, excited, or keen? Finally, I adjust my energy to bring whatever appears to be most needed.

For example, if the person has already been in six meetings that day I might start by making a comment or joke to change the energy and prevent whatever happened in that last meeting from spilling over into mine.

2. Stay grounded

I don't wear sandals to an interview. That's because I secretly tap-dance my toes inside my shoes during the conversation. I find it helpful to press my toes into the soles of my shoes to remind myself that I am on solid ground, scrunch up my toes instead of my eyebrows when I am uncomfortable, and wiggle my toes to stay engaged during those long-winded side tangents that interviewees sometimes need to get off their chests. This works for me. Your feet, your choice!

After the Interview

Phew! It's over. After I finish memo writing and while things are still fresh, I call up Jennica, and we debrief. This is the perfect opportunity to talk about what worked, what didn't, and where I need more practice.

No interview is perfect. So, the key is to keep exploring and refining my interview tool (me).

Check out our other interview blog posts here to learn more about interviewing. Have your own interview character techniques? Feel free to share your strategies with us. Jennica and I LOVE knowing what other folks do to enhance their craft!

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