23 Interview Tips from Master Cal Fussman

On the 31st day of the Third Door Mentor Sessions, we were joined by an amazing guest speaker, one of Alex's most influential mentors, Cal Fussman. Cal is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and world-renowned interviewer. Cal has interviewed some of the most successful people in the world, with one of his most memorable interviews being with Muhammad Ali.

Best Quotes

"A single powerful question can get you to the most powerful people and places on the planet."

"If a question can bring people to a moment of happiness, they will want you to ask another question."

"The best questions make people think about themselves. If they stop and wonder, then you have a good question."

Best of Q&A

Q: What advice would you give to someone at the start of their interviewing journey?

Write out your questions freely after you do your research. Really let your fingertips come to the paper. Once your questions are out on the paper, walk around with those questions for a few days, inhale them, and speak them out in clear sentences.

You want to create a jukebox in your head. At the interview, leave your notepad behind so that you can listen and be improvisational. You want to be in the moment and have a conversation rather than an interview.

Q: As an interviewee, what should you definitely not do?

Don't be nervous. Have random conversations with people in public to get used to it. Go into an interview as if you were going into the isle of a train, and sitting down next to someone you don't know and then having a conversation with them.

Q: How do you get better at answering questions about yourself?

If you need a moment to think, just say, "Wow, that was an unexpected question, I need a moment to think about that. What made you want to know that?"

Be concise, but if you can add in details to make it more cinematic, then add them in. If you leave people wanting more, then they will always want you back.

Q: How do you pass small talk and go right into meaningful conversation with people you don't know well?

Don't small talk. Let them know you are not there to small talk. Look for something interesting about the person and go for it.

If you enter their office and see a photo of kids on their desk, ask about that. Kids, family, and hometown tend to hold a lot of meaning. Even if the answer starts with small talk, it can open up to something bigger based on the follow up questions you ask. If you ask where they are from, then follow up with "What's the best ice cream shop in that city?"

Alex added to Cal's answer by saying that it is important to shovel tunnels, not puddles. Meaning, after you ask a question, ask an insightful follow up to dig deeper into that topic, rather than moving to your next unrelated question. Your first question can be easy to digest, and then you can build from there with questions that attach to the one you asked before.

Q: What if you didn't read someone's book before the interview, how do you bring it up?

Don't feel bad if you didn't read their book, there is no reason you should say "Sorry, I didn't have time to read you book." Instead, say you prefer not to read an interviewee's book before an interview, as the conversations are better if you don't. Say you would rather ask them about the book. A good question to start with is "Why did you decide to write the book?"

Q: How do you get over interview fatigue at a networking event when you start to get lost in everyone's stories?

You want to view each person as a remarkable event in your day. All you have to do is clink classes with someone and they will keep talking.

Q: How do you ask a good question?

A good question is one where someone has to think before giving you their best answer. You want them to stop, look up into the air, and sit in their thoughts for a second, before they can maybe they come up with an answer.

Q: How do you get to the root of an issue with someone you care about when their typical answer is 'I don't know?'

Ask"Why? Why don't you know?" This can help start to break it down. "How long has this been going on? Have you talked to anyone else about it? Do you want to know?" I don't know should not be a roadblock. Try to be on their side and help them figure it out if they do want to know why.

Q: Do you have a question you ask yourself when you feel stuck?

Cal has the attitude of a traveler, so he rarely feels stuck. He says, if you don't like a place, just pick up and go to the next place.

Q: What's the best way to interview a stranger?

Don't think of it as an interview, think of it as a conversation. Ask questions in a way that makes people feel comfortable.

Q: When you have a short amount of time, and want to make a memorable impression, what sort of question can you ask?

Ask one that makes them think. Cal remembers a great question in his interview with Cristiano Ronaldo, where he asked in Portuguese, "Can you remember the first moment you kicked the ball?" In all following questions, Ronaldo was curious. Ask something simple, which challenges a person's memory to go back as far as it can go.

Interview Tips

  • Focus on one moment that fascinates you most about the person. Ask: "I've heard it so much, but I just don't understand, can you explain it to me?"

  • In any conversation, it's never just the words that matter, it's how your body looks when you say the words.10% is the words you use, 30% is tone of voice, 60% is body language.

  • What you think about the world should have no impact on their answers. You are there to learn what they think.

  • If you ask a question that accidentally rubs someone the wrong way, just sincerely apologize.

  • If you dress like they dress, they will trust your sense of taste and be more likely to open up.

  • Listen to the inflection of someone's voice and notice their body language to see if a question lights them up. Over time you will develop intuition to see which of your questions are working.

  • If a person rambles, wait for them to inhale or take a breath and then jump in to redirect the conversation.

  • When people feel safe with you, they will open up more. If you ask uncomfortable questions, they will probably not let you into their soul. Ask questions that make them feel comfortable.

  • The best interviews are when the interviewee is just as curious about the answer as you are. They will be asking for more questions if you take them to a good place in their memory.

This post is in relation to Alex Banayan's Third Door Mentor Sessions.

Topic for Tuesday 6/23: Storytelling

You can find posts on past mentor sessions, as well as sign up to get weekly recaps here.

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