Showing Up for Stakeholder Interviews

October 18, 2021
By Chris Maier

It’s been a week of conversations here at Artemis Ward. We’re in the early stages of discovery for a new client project, which means (as is often the case) that we’re diving headfirst into a big pool of stakeholder interviews. In this instance, we’re talking to people from all around the world — from Ireland and India, Seattle and Silicon Valley — and our conversations are covering everything from nitty-gritty details to more abstract perspectives on what key audiences value and what gets them out of bed each morning. Answering these questions requires thought, and the answers we get help to guide everything that comes next.

This past week, we only had thirty minutes for each interview. Which means we had a lot of information to elicit and not much time to get there. So, I found myself reflecting on the art of stakeholder interviews. Why do we conduct them? What makes them work? What are the ingredients that matter most? 

As basic as it may sound, the point of a stakeholder interview is to make sure that we’re able to understand — from the inside out, in everyday terms — how the people at the heart of the work we’re about to do actually feel about “the situation” at hand. Of course, the shape of “the situation” can vary pretty drastically — from a full brand identity overhaul to the reimagining of a company’s website to the crafting of an organization’s social media strategy. In this most recent case, we’re devising and deploying a multi-national, employee-focused campaign for a Fortune 100 company aimed at spurring more environmentally conscious decision-making as office buildings begin to welcome team members back. In the most black, white, and gray ways possible, we need these stakeholder chats to help us understand organizational and employee communications, sentiments, behaviors, requirements, and restrictions across the globe. 

So how do we make sure we’re getting the most out of our 30-minute conversations (or sometimes 60 minutes, but rarely longer)? A few rules of the road put us in the best place to get what we need.

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Never go it alone.

Conducting a solid interview takes focus and attention. If, all at once, you’re trying to ask questions, listen to answers, and jot down notes, something is going to get sacrificed. Details go missing. Depth feels like a luxury. And the flow of the conversation is never quite smooth. So, tackle stakeholder interviews in pairs: one person to lead the discussion and the other to take the copious notes that’ll become critical to a successful discovery process.

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Know what you need to know.

There are certain venues where winging it makes sense — like improv classes and trampoline parties. But the arena of stakeholder interviews is not one of these. It’s important to know why you’re conducting each interview — what insights and information you hope to glean — and to arrive at the conversation with a solid list of questions in tow. Type them up or write them down. Know what territory you want to cover. And make sure the highest priority questions are called out so that you don’t miss the chance to touch on something critical.

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But go with the flow. 

That said, successful stakeholder interviews — like all good interviews — are conversations. And conversations only work well when we listen as much as we talk and when we transition from one topic to another in organic ways. So don’t be afraid to switch up the order of your questions if it makes more sense. Or offer your own perspective between questions as a means of naturally shifting the dialogue from one theme to another. When interviewees recognize the interviewers as authentic and engaged, they’re much more likely to open up and give you what you’re looking for.

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It’s not just what they say. 

Sure, what people say in a stakeholder interview is immensely important, but how they share their perspectives gives us the color we need to get a 360º understanding of what they’re really saying. Pauses and sighs. Humor and derision. Flat affect and fast talking. All of these things provide extra dimension and context that matters. If you’re in charge of note-taking, pay attention to these things. If your fingers can move fast enough, jot them down. Later, when your team is scouring the notes to collect all of the nuggets and uncover patterns and disparities, these behavioral clues can be gold.

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Move quickly. 

Our days are busy and our brains are cluttered. So while the interview is still fresh in your mind, take a few minutes to huddle up as a crew — interviewer and note-taker — to chat about what stood out, what caused confusion, and what might demand some sort of follow-up. When you do take the time for a debrief, you’ll often find that what you learned in the last interview will lead you to refine your approach to the one that comes next.

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