Writer tricks: If you can’t be a peer, be a student

5 Jun

One of the challenges of interviewing highly technical people is that they often assume that you know their field as well as they do. This can lead them to skip over vast swaths of vital information. To them, that’s basic stuff that doesn’t even need to be addressed. Everyone knows what MYSTERIOUS ACRONYM is! That technology’s been around since A FEW YEARS AGO, BUT SAID IN A TONE THAT MAKES IT SEEM PRACTICALLY PREHISTORIC.

Now, of course you’ve done your homework. You’re aware of the core concepts behind whatever they’re doing, and have at least a first-paragraph-of-Wikipedia level of knowledge about them*. (Henceforth known as Wiki One.) But there’s a hell of a lot more out there that you don’t know, and you’ve fallen into a big tar pit of it.

This presents you with a dilemma. Your expert has assumed that you are more informed and experienced than you really are. You need to correct this impression without giving them the opposite impression: that you’re just a dim-bulb marketing flack who won’t understand anything important that they have to say. They might try to talk at your level, but they might withhold important information because they think that you won’t get it.

You need to present yourself as someone who Gets It, but just needs a little help. One good way to do this is to jump on a concept that isn’t clear to you and ask your expert questions that show them:

  1. You have been listening attentively to their explanation
  2. Even though you don’t understand it, you’re making a genuine effort to do so.

When this approach works, your relationship changes from writer/expert to teacher/student. This is an awesome place to be in an interview. Most people love to teach – it affirms that they are important and worthy of respect and attention, and by educating someone in a subject that they’re passionate about, they feel that they’ve made the world a better place. They’ve turned a light on in someone’s head.

Suddenly, they’re more invested in this interview than they were a moment ago. They’re working with you at the approriate level to make sure that you really Get It.

* Okay, not always. One time, I was forced to begin an interview by asking a yield management solutions company what “yield managment” was. Wikipedia has an entry, but the descriptiuon didn’t match what these guys seemed to be doing. Fortunately, I was able to Get It in 25 words or less.

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