For the past year and a half, I’ve been working for a programme designed to help foreign-born women and men come into their full potential as entrepreneurs. In the process, I got to work with over 30 women and men from all over the world. Some had come to Sweden after receiving a job offer. Others – to support a partner. Some moved so they can finally live as openly gay. Others fled death threats and war. Nearly all were in the early stages of starting a business.
A key part of my work with these talented women and men has been crafting the story of who they are – a process particularly necessary and pressing for anyone who has moved country. Initially – those stories formed the core of their profiles on our website and Facebook. Later, they became useful building blocks for the final part of the programme – the pitch in front of investors.
During our conversations, I often felt like a therapist, PR Manager and a biographer all rolled into one. After – that I had gained some valuable insights which helped me navigate the uncertain terrain of getting to know someone in a capacity which is professional and a context which is very personal. Perhaps some of my observations can help you if your job involves speaking to people in order to better understand them.
1. Before the interview
In the moments before the interview begins, I try to forget about any other tasks I need to do later that day and just focus on what is about to happen. A person, whom I previously knew only professionally, will – if I do my job well – let me into their private life: their childhood, their family; hopes they had had and lost, hopes they have that keep them going. We are told people love to talk about themselves but I think that sentence is missing something – people love to talk about themselves in certain ways and not in others; about certain topics but not others. In the process of the interview, however, I will try to leave no stone unturned…I will do it cautiously and respectfully but I will do it determinedly. Knowing this is what I am about to do, I focus on my intentions – to find out as much as possible in order to paint the best possible picture.
2. Dealing with smoke and mirrors
Unfortunately, not all conversations become heart-to-heart. People who have something to sell, know that they often have to sell themselves too. With that mindset comes the inevitable and undesirable reality for the interviewer: a “scripted” conversation. In these cases, the entrepreneur has constructed a narrative – either by themselves or with the help of a PR-minded person(s) – which involved a process of elimination. Anything deemed unfavourable/ not in keeping with the image they are trying to create was removed. The remaining pieces of their journey were polished to reveal the image which they set out to portray. Sadly, there is no escaping this type of conversation but there are some tell-tale signs that can help you spot what’s happening early on: there will be significant gaps in the person’s history, usually with entire periods missing (childhood, for example). Often, the history they tell covers only the last leg of their journey. The content of what they say aside, the way I can tell that this is happening today is by focusing on my experience as a listener – I am not getting a picture of who they are but a foggy and fragmented impression that doesn’t get any clearer regardless of the type or number of questions I ask.
3. Less research = more immediacy
In my previous work as a journalist, it would have been unthinkable for me to turn up for an interview without having researched the person I’m about to meet, in-depth. Applying the same to entrepreneurs was counterproductive more often than not. What I lost when researching extensively beforehand is the immediacy and opportunity to hear their life story for the first time through their own words – their own words as they are spoken, not written on social media or on their LinkedIn profiles. While “less research” might sound tempting, it could make you seem unprepared at best and uncaring at worst. To manage interviewee’s expectations, I say: “I’d like you to trust me as if I were your best friend but assume I know as little about you as a complete stranger”.
4. Listening carefully….and interrupting (unapologetically)
One of the most challenging aspects of the interviewing process is the somewhat contradictory approach the interviewer has to take – on one hand, letting the interviewee tell their story and what they see as relevant. On the other – honing in on some key moments and digging deep which usually involves interruption. It might be jarring to the interviewee – one moment you are listening as attentively as a therapist, the next – firing “when”, “how many”, “why”. If you are worried about this, it helps to state this from the outset – that at times you’ll just listen and at other times – interrupt.
5. Point of entry
One of the fastest ways to learn a lot of useful and useable information about the person you’re interviewing is to ask them why they chose the subject they chose to study (assuming they have gone to university). The answer to this question usually starts the conversation about their family, their culture and who they were when they were younger. If their story is “too” straight-forward – what they studied then and what they want to do now are very closely linked – then I like to look for tension in the story elsewhere – perhaps their childhood or the challenges they’ve had to overcome.