Three ways to give a good interview, and one way to shake things up


I do a lot of interviews. At least two or three a week — ranging from CNN to local newspapers. And no matter where the interview is running, there are some things you need to know about doing a good one:

1. Be interesting. The questions people ask you are not really what they want to know. It's what they think will be interesting. They would ask you about the price of tea in China if they thought the answer would be interesting.

So your job in an interview is to give an answer that is entertaining and thought-provoking and all the other things that people like. You don't need to answer the question as much as you need to answer the need for interestingness.

2. Be short. The world does not have an unlimited attention span to hear how your mind works. So you can't think out loud in an interview and have everyone wait til you get to your point. Your point has to start right away.

Also, if you are short then you are more likely to be interesting the whole time. The longer you talk about a given topic the harder it is to keep someone's interest. In the PR world this is called “soundbite”. But really, you can use the sound bite technique everywhere — on radio, in a blog post, on a date.

3. Be conversational. You can't be chatty in a written interview because there's no one there. But on the phone, or on TV you can actually make the interview into more of a conversation. In a many cases, the interview becomes more interesting this way.

First of all, it tells the audience that the person interviewing is interesting in their own right, because you are asking questions back to him or her. And a room with two interesting people is better than a room with only one interesting person. The second thing is that the conversation becomes a little less scripted and there is more risk and more space for unbridled passion, on either side of the conversation. And spontaneity makes conversation more engaging.

Be upbeat is also a rule. I think. But why is this a rule? I'm not sure. I think it is like the rule about the first two minutes — or whatever the time frame is that someone forms their judgment of you. You want them to meet someone who is fresh-faced, chirpy and upbeat. But what if you're feeling grouchy? What if you are not really a chirpy type of person?

Recently I've been experimenting with breaking the rule about being upbeat. I did an audio interview with self-confidence coach Steve Errey, on a morning when I was having a confidence crisis. And I decided I was not going to fake it on the phone.

Then a week later, I did a written interview with Gretchen Rubin, who is writing a book about happiness research, and I decided to allow myself to reveal that I feel pissy about the happiness research.

And you know what? I really like both interviews. Maybe you will too. And if you like those, then maybe you will also like the photo that everyone told me I could not put on my blog masthead because the world does not like sulking. But I love a good sulk:

51 replies
  1. Anna
    Anna says:

    Rachel Maddow is a great example of good interviewing skills. And she’s interviewed some tough people, and handled some interviews that turned particularly nasty (David Frum anyone?).

    And Ann Marie Cox is a great example of a good interviewee.

    And I think one of the reasons both of them are so great is because of #3. It’s so important to make a connection during an interview. Otherwise, it’s just not interesting.

  2. Joselle
    Joselle says:

    I loved your interview with Gretchen Rubin, especially this part: “Happiness is sort of a trick. I don’t think there is a lot of happiness in life. There is a lot of hopefulness and interest in how things unfold, and there are spurts of happiness.”

    Those are some very wise. I don’t know if happiness is the point. I think trying to pursue happiness creates a lot of misery. There is a lot about life that is vile and unfair.

    This also makes me think of that thing couples couselors say about fighting. Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? I think about that when I fight with my boyfriend but I find it virtually impossible to feel happy if I’m not right. But if I’m right, I’m fighting and hurting him. So, it’s a mess. I’ve found it better to just accept, which doesn’t bring me happiness but it does bring me some peace.

    • MJ
      MJ says:

      I also liked the interview with Gretchen Rubin – you were honest, were not forcing fake cheer or cheering-up strategies and didn’t fall into the Pollyanna/relentlessly-cheerful-about-everything! attitude that can be so annoying to people who have complex lives and know that frankly, some things just plain suck and normal people aren’t HAPPY! all of the time (i.e., you didn’t pee on our collective legs and tell us that it is raining).

  3. Cappy Popp
    Cappy Popp says:

    Very well said.

    It’s incredible how nervousness in an interview can lead people to ramble indefinitely. ‘Be short’ should be a mantra. Leave them wanting more, not dulled by a tidal wave of irrelevance. I think the ‘upbeat’ item depends on the industry. An upbeat economist would probably be laughed out of any interview right now. =)

  4. RML
    RML says:

    Wow. That photo looks exactly like the pose that prompted my “constructive discharge” six months ago. Frankly, I think the look is honest. And honesty is refreshing in my opinion. I guess the issue for me, is figuring out when I’m allowed to sulk and when I’m not.

  5. Rohan Bodman
    Rohan Bodman says:

    The crossed arms make all the difference! I didn’t know until now that the photo at the top of the blog showed a sulking person. (Great photo btw.) But once you see the context …

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I liked both of the interviews you linked to above but the audio interview with self-confidence coach Steve Errey was my favorite. Maybe it was just the medium (audio) as it was light-hearted, conversational (chatty), and especially fun at the end.
    The sulk photo is good. You should also have some other photos taken displaying your various moods and emotions. Then pick and display on the blog masthead the appropriate one each day depending on how you’re feeling . Now that would be unique!

  7. doug
    doug says:

    This is just excellent. And it’s no less than 180 degrees from the pretentious trivia you see in blog posts, books, articles written by “Human Resource Professionals.” I’m going to write these things down so i can remember to do them. Also, i hope you’ll write more in this area. (I know that’s asking a lot given that this might be the only dating-web startup-career-marriage counseling-personal finance blog in existence, still, i would be very grateful.

  8. That Mike
    That Mike says:

    I am crushing on the Pouty Penelope Photo.

    Gives me a visual on some of your swings into that mood zone.

    But I am really wondering about that cup in front of you. It is huge, as big as your head. Maybe the sulking is from a sugar-spike or a caffeine-high – an overdose.

    Perhaps you should stick to the sip of wine for your morning or a wee dram as is me preference.

    Now that would be a picture to put in your masthead.

  9. Steve Errey - The Confidence Guy
    Steve Errey - The Confidence Guy says:

    Hey P

    Honesty is indeed refreshing and many people have self-imposed rules about whether or not they can show people what mood they’re in, but I’d say there are times when you need to fake a bit of chirpiness. A first date or an interview at a company you’d eat your right arm to get into are examples of times you’ll need to temper any grouchiness with a sprinkling of levity.

    Thanks for the link love, and hope to chat again soon :D

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes. Good point. The only reason that I can experiment with pissiness is that sometimes I do interviews where the audience already knows me. I think that if the audience doesn’t know you, you need to be more professional and even-keeled.

      I think it’s safe to say that you won’t see me in my sulking pose next time I’m on CNN :)


  10. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Your comments on how to give a good interview are spot on. As a journalist, I can say that what I’m looking for in an interview is to a) get through the things I already know from research but need you to say for the purposes of the story and then b) move the story forward by finding out interesting things that I didn’t already know.

  11. principalspage
    principalspage says:

    A very useful post… I will refer back to it when I do my next round of interviews… (roflmao)…

    I must admit while I used to hate your family/relationship/divorce/trainwreck posts… I have come to need them.

    It’s like you gave the first one to me free.. and now I’m hooked. You may be considered a dealer.

    So please, try to crank up the personal drama. I hate to say it, but it makes me smile.

  12. Steve C
    Steve C says:

    Hopefully, no one will confuse your comments on interviewing with interviewing for a job. If your suggestion/confusion on whether on not to be upbeat is misinterpreted for use in job interviews, you have just bestowed the Kiss-of-Death on anyone taking your advice.
    Just to clarify for you, being upbeat in an interview(for jobs)is essential to avoid coming across as a downer. No one wants to hire, and much less work with, a negative person. That’s why job interviews are so difficult for most people: it sucks that they are unemployed(or misemployed) and having to go through the interview process to begin with. So naturally, almost no one feels upbeat. This is also why preparing for interviews is so important for job seekers.
    Steve C.

  13. Jodi G
    Jodi G says:

    I’ve been reading your blogs and becoming a fan. I recruit financial advisors for a living and spend most of my time helping college students with career search issues. I truly believe that the more students I help, the more great people I have a chance of meeting who would be right for the career.

    I have a friend starting her financial planning practice in Madison, WI in April. I really want help her succeed with any guidance I can provide. I’ve referred her to your blog, videos, etc.

    What would be your top recommendation to a young, female professional to begin networking effectively in Madison?

    Your advice is appreciated!

  14. Barbara
    Barbara says:


    The reason these interviews are so interesting (and btw, I love Steve; I’ve been getting his newsletter for several years) is that you are so real.

    I don’t always agree with you (as I’ve said many times!) but I appreciate how transparent you are about your business and your life, and it has inspired me to be more honest with my writing and all aspects of my life.

    As a side note, my fiance and I have christened the neighbors’ cat, who shows up on our doorstep for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Penelope Trunk.

    Just because she’s sassy, a little bit pouty, fearless, and always interesting!

  15. Marsha Keeffer, Silicon Valley, CA
    Marsha Keeffer, Silicon Valley, CA says:

    I like the fact that you were confident enough to be real. Too many execs are over-media-trained. They come across as slick know-it-alls, not leaders you’d trust.

    I think another aspect that’s important is to avoid being homogenized. The day of the dark suit and white shirt is over – boring, canned corporate responses should be too.

  16. Heather Maietta
    Heather Maietta says:

    I teach career courses for undergraduate students, and getting them to be brief in their responses without falling short of needed content is challenging. Many either ramble on due to nerves or do not expand upon their answers by using appropriate examples. Mandatory career courses should be embedded in the standard undergraduate curriculum. Noone is born a natural interviewer, but with practice most can improve.

  17. Ranjeet Kapoor
    Ranjeet Kapoor says:


    I listened your interview with self-confidence coach Steve Errey. I am inspired by your self-confidence and your open ideas regarding this.

    Without the Self-Confidence, our life really is not a life worth living.

    many thanks Penelope!

  18. Shawn
    Shawn says:

    Great suggestions. At least once a week, I see an “expert” on one of the major news channels talking sharing tips on how to save money or reduce credit card debt. In most cases, they repeat the same advice we’ve all heard countless times. Those who are able to put a new spin on it, even if it’s just fancy packaging, are the ones I find most interesting.

  19. Matt Cheuvront
    Matt Cheuvront says:

    Great suggestions. I always try to make sure I am myself, because that’s when I’m at my best. My professional self, but also the witty-charming (did I mention modest) self. I try to give the interviewer a look into my mind, as random as it might be. I feel like I have a lot to offer and if I focus too much on the interview itself I end up stifling myself and the person that I want people to see.

    Coming in with several engaging questions has been key for me. Doing a LITTLE research can go a LONG way. It suprises and gains the attention of the interviewer when you can ‘turn the tables’ so to speak.

  20. Hayli @ Rise Smart
    Hayli @ Rise Smart says:

    You are a great interview, Penelope, but I don’t like the sulky picture – sorry. As a former reporter who once interviewed you, I had to look back over my notes and pick one of your most interesting comments, which just happens to be related to happiness – “A lot of people think a job will make them happy. A job doesn't make you happy, your personal life makes you happy. So they need to stop thinking that, and take care of it outside of work.”

    • Steve C.
      Steve C. says:

      The comment about work and happiness doesn’t sit well with me. It seems to imply that work is synonymous with unhappiness, or that the two are at least independent of each other. I suspect that if you had a picture of Penelope from that interview, the one in this post would pale in comparison on the “grumpy” scale. The happiest people I have ever known were those people who were enjoying their work and gained a sense of fulfillment from it. These were individuals at peace with themselves and their lives.
      To suggest that the norm is otherwise seems to me to be a surrender to a career of drudgery and lack of fulfillment. Even without any hard data to offer, I would still suspect that a great deal of strife and escape via substance abuse or other destructive and addictive behavior springs forth from the seed planted by a work life that lacks meaning. Those who have found their life’s calling don’t have to seek happiness anywhere else. It’s just there.
      Steve C.

  21. Anali
    Anali says:

    Nice post! I guess one person’s sulk is another one’s pensive. I’ve always liked the photo and never saw it as sulky.

  22. Randy Zeitman
    Randy Zeitman says:

    “Be upbeat is also a rule. I think.”

    Well isn’t it really “don’t piss off people you want on your side?” and then when they’re coming to you it’s “Whoever cares less, wins.”

  23. upug
    upug says:

    wow, hearing your voice pegs you from New York and Jewish. The voice in my head was completely different, since I’m from Chicago and you live in Wisconsin.

  24. XENCOR
    XENCOR says:

    I listened to your interview…more than anything else ..your sultry voice…with the slight grunge and crack….and the well placed repetitions of yur 2 showers were enought to get the adrenalin pumped up :)

    Lady, you could be a siren anyday you chose..damn the VCs!!!

  25. Paula G
    Paula G says:

    A great interview is conversational. I think the points you make are good because it goes to the heart of the matter — people want to hear from people who are 1) real and 2) interesting….those boring drone like interviews are well too painful for words. I know when I interview folks for my podcast I love when it gets off track and we move into a dance of conversation and sharing. It is far more interesting than ever thinking it needs to be like a script (yawn…).

  26. Tracey
    Tracey says:

    I’m a recruiter and I must agree with all of this. I don’t have a lot of time, please get to the point. I also really like it when people are upbeat. It makes me think they are interested in the job and not going to give me the run around. I’ve found I tend to not like people as much if there is no energy or they are not upbeat. I do, however, like the photo.

  27. Taylor
    Taylor says:

    Another point for successful interviewing is to not raise the subject of salary unless it is brought up by the person conducting the interview. It is better to be armed with salary knowledge ahead of time by visiting sites such as Payscale or SalaryFor to get an idea of what the company or similiar positions are paying. It is not uncommon for the interviewer to ask what salary range the candidate is looking for.

  28. 5 mistakes
    5 mistakes says:

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