The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 3 Issue 11   December 2007


For our final newsletter of 2007, we focus on… Katie Couric. A less than obvious choice, perhaps, but one which ties in well with the topic of effective interviewing, the subject of this month’s edition.

Happy holidays to you and your family!

As always, please click here to send us your thoughts and comments.

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

What Makes Katie So Good?

It’s December, and with the U.S. Presidential elections a scant 11 months away, the top news story on any given day is, as it has been for the previous 11 months, the candidates. Switch on the news at virtually any time of day or night, and you’re bound to see at least one of the presidential hopefuls talking, travelling, smiling, eating or debating.

My favorite candidate-viewing format, however, is when they are one-on-one, answering questions posed by a single interviewer. It may just be my open-ended research orientation, but to me, there’s something more revealing and yes, authentic, about this arrangement.

CBS news anchor Katie Couric offers a terrific example of this format in her recently launched segment, “Primary Questions.” Here, she asks the same 10 questions to each of the leading presidential candidates. I have to confess, I’m fascinated by this series, and in particular, by Katie’s demonstrated skills as an expert interviewer.

In fact, and while I don’t expect Katie to be working for CSR any time soon, I do think she’d make a terrific interviewer for our open-ended survey format. So much so, that I’ve put together, “Katie’s Unauthorized Year-End Guide to Effective Interviewing.”

  1. Don’t stop until you get enough.

    Watching 10 candidates field the same question, one after the other, is illuminating. Some answer the question simply and directly. Others (I’m not naming names!) dance all over the room. Katie has a knack for sensing when more clarification is needed, and she follows up until the question at hand is addressed.

    Similarly, a good survey interviewer recognizes ambiguity and the need for clarifying follow-up questions. Because while survey-takers (unlike political candidates) don’t usually have an unspoken agenda that they’re trying to advance, the opportunity for offering vague (and therefore, less valuable) information is always present.

    For example, suppose the interviewee, in a survey relating to a training class says, “The course was great, I liked it a lot.” He or she may know exactly what is meant by “great,” however as a practical matter, it can describe any number of course attributes, including duration, location, teaching style, or even the quality of the donuts served during breaks. A good interviewer will offer a pointed follow-up, such as, “Exactly what was it about the course that made it great?”

    Keep in mind as well that “knowing when you’ve heard enough” is at least partly dependent on understanding the context of the research. For this reason, researchers conducting open-ended work require a healthy dose of pre-survey briefing, so that they understand the goals of the research as well as the intent of each question.

  2. But stop when you do.

    In contrast, too much information can also be detrimental. Within any group of interviewees, there will always be some who like to chat, and who want to take the conversation off on related (or even unrelated) tangents. The skilled interviewer will recognize this (quickly) and bring the conversation back on topic.

    The truth is, keeping the conversation energetic and open, and yet concise, can be a fine line to walk, and it’s one of the most important skills of a capable interviewer. Adding length to interviews — without adding insight — contributes to both increased research costs and increased lag time between data gathering and final results. It’s critical, therefore, that the interviewer moves on as soon as the needed information is obtained.

  3. Ask, and be silent.

    One of the hardest things to do as an interviewer is to ask a question, and then stop talking. Interviewees often take time to formulate and then express a point of view, and as Katie Couric consistently demonstrates, the interviewee should be doing most (80%+) of the talking.

    Many novice interviewers, on the other hand, have a knack for doing just the opposite. Often, just as the respondent starts answering, they jump back in with additional commentary or clarification, frustrating the respondent and stepping on what might be important information in the process.

    Learning to slow down and be patient as an interviewer is critical (and something in which we Northeasterners need extra training!). In addition, conducting interviews over the phone, as CSR typically does, makes it all the more challenging, thanks to the lack of visual, “I’m still thinking” cues that are present when interviewer and interviewee can see one another.

  4. Leave your ego at home.

    Katie’s got an impressive resume of her own, and yet when she poses questions, she does so without the need to demonstrate how smart she is. As a result, respondents feel at ease, and the focus of the conversation is (as it should be) on them, not her.

    It’s for this reason, in fact, that interviewers who know too much about a given subject are often less effective. Rather than soaking up information and opinion from respondents, they may begin to engage in a two-way discussion. This may make for lively conversation, but it’s a less effective means of gathering data.

    Instead, an effective researcher interacts to reassure the respondent that he’s been heard, but without injecting her own bias or personal follow-ups into the process.

These four suggestions are by no means the only attributes of a good interviewer. That said, keep them in mind as you start the new year, and, like Katie, you may also become a standout in your field!

— Mark

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Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Paraphrasing — the act of restating what someone has just said, for the purpose of clarification — can be an effective technique in the open-ended researcher’s toolkit. In addition to reassuring the interviewee that he’s being listened to, it can add a finer point to what’s being communicated.

But it does have a downside…

Consider this holiday example: Suppose the interviewee says, “I don’t believe in Santa, because the whole chimney thing doesn’t make any sense.”

And you, in an effort to paraphrase, say, “Oh, so you think Santa’s too fat to get down the chimney?”

You might be correct, however it’s just as likely that the interviewee’s problem with the “chimney thing” is that not all homes have chimneys, or that many chimneys have fires burning in them, or something else entirely.

In this case, a clarification probe would be more effective (e.g. “What exactly is it about Santa and chimneys that doesn’t make sense to you?”)

The point is, too much, or inaccurate paraphrasing can be frustrating to the respondent, and, by extending the interview, add cost to the project. Use this tactic sparingly, and only when you’re fairly certain you understand what’s being said!

Ho, Ho, Ho!


What Makes Katie So Good?

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

About Us

happy holidays

“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”

— Larry King

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The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data.


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