A few years ago, I helped a few dozen members of my audience start interviewing. In a weekly meeting, one of them said, “I worry about not paying attention to my interviewee’s answer and being stuck finding a way to respond.” That’s much more common than people realize because many interviewers edit those goofs out.
I was sweating when that happened to me in my interview with Mike Jones, an entrepreneur who sold his company to AOL. My audience, at the time, was limited to the small Los Angeles tech community, where everyone knew Mike as one of its most successful members. I felt pressure to get the interview right.
To do that, I put together pages of notes. Then I took more notes during our conversation because I think better when I take notes. At one point, while he answered my question, I tried to find a note, but it was lost in the pages floating around on my desk. I didn’t hear his answer to my question. He paused. It was my turn to talk.
What could I do? If he had said something poignant and I shot back an irrelevant question, I’d seem insensitive. If I admitted I didn’t pay attention, I could lose credibility. I paused for a moment and suddenly came up with a question that I felt would always be relevant: “What’s your motivation?” Then I explained that I admired the hard work he put in, years after selling his company. Why was he putting himself through it?
It worked. Why? Because I genuinely wonder what motivates all my guests. And it’s a question I feel is relevant no matter what my guests say. If they tell me about something painful they did, it makes sense to ask “what’s your motivation?” so I could understand why they put themselves through the difficulty. If they tell me about something heroic, “what’s your motivation?” fits too. If they tell me about their childhood, “what’s your motivation?” can be a good follow-up.
In the early days, I got stuck like that often because I was still nervous. So I kept the “what’s your motivation?” question in the back of my mind and used it as needed.
If you’re ever stuck, find your own “in case of emergency” questions. Here are some examples:
Listening to you, I can see you work hard. I have to pause and ask: what’s your motivation?
Before we continue, I want to check in: how is this interview going for you?
I hate to switch gears, but with so little time together, I have to ask you about …
And if you have more guts than I did when I started, go with, “I’m sorry. I’m so new at this that I was overly worried about my notes and missed what you said.”
Like all things in life, it’s okay to make mistakes while interviewing. What’s important is that you recover and keep going.