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3 Essential Qualities of Great Interviewers

Whether you’re a recruiter, hiring manager, or small business owner, you need to hire capable, self-motivated people. Recruiting is a process, and interviewing is a key part of the process.

Think for a minute and name some of the best interviewers you know. Did your list include Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, and Johnny Carson?

Now think back to your own first job interview and how the interviewer conducted it. Or better yet, think back to the worst job interview you had. What could the interviewer have done better? How did you feel during that interview? Did you take the job, or did you run as fast as you could?

Employment interviewers could take plenty of cues from top interviewers like Walters and Carson. To get through the recruiting process and come out the other end confident you have gotten to know candidates enough to make the best hiring decisions, you need interviewing expertise.

At The Recruiting Division, we know the value of the interview in the recruiting process. We have discussed interviewing in blog posts like “Start Asking Unique Interview Questions” and “Master the Behavioral Interview.” How you ask questions and what kind of questions you ask are important during interviews, but certain things the best interviewers do affect your hiring outcomes.

There are different types of interviewing, whether initial phone screening, video interviewing, or in-person discussions with a candidate. All interviews require the same thing to get the best results – a good interviewer.

So what’s it take to perform great interviews?

The best interviewers have three qualities in common: they prepare well, have good communication skills, and are good at assessing candidates. The principals of FurstPerson, Inc. know this and regularly discuss it online.

Prepare for interviews

FurstPerson’s Tim McDaris says preparation for interviewing is an important part of being able to make hiring decisions. He explains interviewers must understand the candidates, the positions they are hiring for, and the communications that occur during the interview process, both to and from the candidates.

Famous late night show host Johnny Carson knew the importance of preparing for interviews. Everyone who knew Carson and worked with him said he always prepared well. Screenwriter and producer Billy Wilder talked about Carson coming prepared to interview and managing to sound natural and at ease even though he always rehearsed.

Barbara Walters has been lauded far and wide for her many high profile interviews and her interview expertise. The advice she gives to everyone who will be interviewing is to do the “homework.” She cites her own extensive preparation before interviews. Her angle on interviews is to get an emotional response from people by asking about their childhoods or parents.

Walters prepares by doing her homework on her interview subjects, getting to know more about them than they know themselves (as she likes to joke).

In The Recruiting Division’s “Hiring for Attitude, Part 2,” we discuss aspects of interview preparation. HootSuite’s CEO Ryan Holmes advises interviewers to over-prepare for interviews and use an answer key or candidate rating form to ensure top candidate characteristics required for the position and culture fit are evaluated and compared.

A good employment interview preparation process should include the following:

  • Research the open position and job description so you understand the candidate requirements for knowledge, skills, education, and experience. Don’t just read the job description though. Make sure you know the department and manager for the position, the skills and experience required for the work, and the work environment of the position.
  • Talk to the hiring manager and ask about successful candidates who have or are currently in the position, noting qualities of the top performers. Use performance evaluations to understand how the employees in the position are evaluated, talk to the best employees and observe them at their jobs. Ask about poor performers too, to understand what it takes to succeed in the position.
  • Review resumes and social media footprints of top candidates and phone screen them before inviting them for in-person interviews to verify resume details, candidate enthusiasm and job fit.
  • Prepare and rehearse interview questions to ask, using open-ended and behavioral interview questions. See The Recruiting Division’s “Top Behavioral Interview Questions,” “Master the Behavioral Interview,” and “3 Types of Interesting Interview Questions for a Behavioral Interview” for some examples.
  • Plan an agenda for the interview, including reserving a comfortable, quiet place to talk to the candidate, a tour of the company or facilities, introductions to people the person in the position would work and interact with. Making candidate experience a part of the recruiting process is important, according to Talent Board, a non-profit organization that promotes candidate experience. It benefits both recruiting companies and candidates by protecting and developing relationships with candidates who share their experiences with friends and family and in social media.

Good communication is key

McDaris of FurstPerson says effective interviewers are good communicators. They listen well and convey information clearly. The skills involves asking probing questions and listening in various forms, including paying attention to body language and non-verbal clues such as facial expressions and word choice.


Listening is an interviewing skill attributed to the most famous interviewers including Barbara Walters and Johnny Carson. Producer Peter Jones talks about how Carson’s interview style put everyone at ease and included listening carefully and making people feel as though they were talking to a friend, not being probed for information.

This is good advice Dick Cavett got from Jack Paar, Johnny Carson’s predecessor, who told him interviews are boring and advised him to make it a conversation. Good communication means the candidates feel comfortable revealing the information you are trying to get from them.


Being a good communicator for interviews means knowing not only what questions to ask but also how to use strategic pauses to coax the information that you want. Knowing when to stop talking is just as important as knowing when to talk.

The best interviewers aren’t afraid of a lull in the discussion because they know they can use it. PBS News anchor Jim Lehrer understands this well. He advises deliberately pausing after an interview subject answers, saying it often gets surprising and unexpected information more effectively than asking another question right away.

Ability to assess people

Recruiting guru Lou Adler says to accurately assess candidates, you must clearly understand the real job needs and determine candidate fit and motivation from past performance.

Oprah most certainly prepared well for her interview with Lance Armstrong, and assessed him well before she ever asked the first hard questions about doping, accepting responsibility, and plans for restitution.

She knew he was a strong personality used to lying to get and keep his fame and position, and used a straight-forward approach in the interview. For example, she asked questions using language that the media had been applying to him, such as “cheater and liar” to ask him if he did take drugs, if he knew it was wrong, and if he felt bad about it.

Employment interviews require the same ability to assess the candidates, asking the right questions, and probing for all the information needed to make the best hiring decisions.

Qualities of great interviewers

The great interviewers of the last several of decades include Barbara Walters, Johnny Carson, Oprah Winfrey, Katie Couric, Dick Cavett, Jack Paar, David Frost, Jim Lehrer, and David Letterman.

Barbara Walters interviewed many famous people over the years, from celebrities to criminals, to media personalities, to presidents. She’s even taken a break from her recent retirement to interview Peter Rodger, father of Isla Vista mass murder Elliot Rodger, at his request. Her interview skills, tact, listening abilities, and fairness are respected and admired the world over.

Some of the great interviews include David Frost’s interview with Richard Nixon, Princess Diana’s interview by Martin Bashir, Tom Cruise jumping on the couch during his interview with Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jackson’s rare opening up to Winfrey at Neverland.

The most famous interviewers and every employment interviewer have the same goals: to get the inside track on those they interview. And they all need the same things – preparation, communication skills, and ability to accurately assess people.

Make sure you have the same three attributes when you interview to get the best results. Your hiring decisions depend on it.